In Issue

  • Whether a principal can be held vicariously liable for the acts of a subcontractor.

The Background

On 14 March 2005, Mr Mark Lee (the appellant) sustained a back injury whilst manoeuvring boxes of soft drink on the back of his truck that had dislodged whilst in transit. He claimed damages for his injury from Woolworths (owner of goods), Coca Cola (manufacturer of goods) and Wickham Freight Lines (the respondent) (transporter of goods). Proceedings against Woolworths and Coca Cola were subsequently discontinued.

At the time of the incident, the appellant was employed by Williams Bulk Haulage who had been subcontracted by the respondent to deliver goods to a Woolworths’ Big W store in Campsie. The injury occurred at a depot at Yennora which was owned and operated by a third party, Combined Distribution Management (CDM).

The Decision at Trial

The trial judge held that the respondent did not owe a duty of care to the appellant as it had not taken charge over the manner in which he had manoeuvred the boxes which caused his injury. The system of work was devised by his employer; the area in which the truck was unloaded was not under the respondent’s control and the existence of subcontractor guidelines were not sufficient to establish that the respondent had assumed any legal responsibility for employees of its subcontractors.

The Decision on Appeal

The Court of Appeal found no error in the decision of the trial judge and dismissed the appeal.

In re-affirming the finding of the primary judge, the Court of Appeal unanimously held that none of the factors which may give rise to liability on the part of a principal existed because the respondent did not control the premises on which the unloading occurred, the appellant’s reliance on the respondent having occupation of the premises was misconceived, the accident did not occur due to lack of coordination of subcontractors and the respondent did not exercise day-to-day control over the activities of subcontractors and its employees.


The case reaffirms the general proposition that a principal will not be held vicariously liable for the acts of a subcontractor. There are circumstances in which a principal can be held liable for injury sustained by employees of a subcontractor; however, certain factors will need to be established which show that the principal exercised substantial control over the day-to-day activities of subcontractors and that the relevant premises were under the principal’s control.

Lee v Wickham Freight Lines Pty Ltd [2016] NSWCA 209