School and expedition company not liable for rape of schoolgirls whilst on trip to Belize.  

Implications

Whilst the Claimants in this case deserve every sympathy, it is not surprising that they did not succeed in their claim, once the facts are reviewed in detail.

The decision represents another failed attempt to argue vicarious liability for the actions of a non-employee. In the case of EL v The Children’s Society [24.02.12] the operator of a care home was found not to be vicariously liable for alleged child abuse by the houseparents’ son. The courts have made it clear that the doctrine of vicarious liability should be carefully applied.

Mr Justice Mackay highlighted that Government guidance in relation to school trips has recently been relaxed. Since December 2011, the aim has been to reduce the burden on schools in undertaking trips, cutting 150 pages of guidelines to just eight. This is likely to make it more difficult to successfully bring a claim when an incident occurs.

Background

The two Claimants were students at the First Defendant’s school. They set off in July 2005 to Belize, in a party of 12. On 1 August, whilst at a remote camp, the Claimants and another girl were raped by a local man. They alleged that the school and the Second Defendant, ALS - a specialist company which assisted in the organisation of the expedition - were to blame.

The girls, who were aged between 15 and 17, were given a high degree of responsibility for the planning and execution of the trip. Present on the trip were a teacher from the school, Miss Pina, and two representatives of ALS. During the trip, an opportunity arose for the party to undertake a project for a company called Maya Walks, which was run by Jimmy Juan and his son, Aaron, at its farm. ALS carried out checks on Maya Walks and a risk assessment was prepared. On 31 July, in return for three days work, Aaron took the party to a local swimming pool. They then went to a nearby bar, leaving at 10.30pm. Aaron drove them all back to the farm. He later entered one of the cabanas in which the girls were sleeping and, after a period of time drinking and socialising, raped the Claimants and a third girl.

Decision

Mackay J dismissed the claims, finding as follows:

  • Vicarious liability - because this doctrine imposes strict liability without proof of fault by the defendant, it is a principle which has to be kept within bounds. The facts in this case fell short of describing a situation where it would be just and fair to call Aaron a person for whose actions the Defendants should be vicariously liable.  
  • Direct liability of First Defendant - the suggestion that two teachers should have been allocated to the expedition was not a realistic one. The omission of a second teacher could not be described as a breach of the school’s duty of care.  
  • Duty of care of First and Second Defendants - the leadership team of three were not in breach of their duty to take such reasonable care to ensure the safety of the pupils on this trip as would be taken by a reasonably careful parent. The checks made in relation to Maya Walks were reasonable and proportionate. The leaders of the expedition were not given any reason to foresee this terrible event. The Defendants did not breach their respective duties of care to these Claimants, who were the victims of an unscrupulous, determined and skilful attacker.