In Cox v Ministry of Justice [2014] EWCA Civ 132, the Court of Appeal has found the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) vicariously liable in a case brought by a catering manager against a prison for injuries caused by the actions of a paid working prisoner. The catering manager, who was an employee of the MoJ, sustained serious injury when the prisoner negligently dropped a large sack of rice on her.

Vicarious liability is a legal doctrine that assigns liability for an injury suffered by a claimant to a person or entity who did not cause the injury but who has a particular legal relationship to the person who acted negligently and caused the injury. The most frequent form of vicarious liability is where is it deemed fair and just to hold the employers vicariously liable for the acts and omissions of an employee.

An earlier ruling in the High Court had dismissed the claim on the basis that the MoJ was not liable for the conduct of the prisoner as the relationship did not give rise to the application of vicarious liability. The MoJ argued that there was no contractual relationship in place between the prisoner and the prison and no intention to create legal relations.

The Court of Appeal overturned the decision that the MoJ was not liable for the conduct of the prisoner on the basis that the activity being carried out by the prisoner was part of the prison’s activity in running the catering department of the prison. As the MoJ took the benefit of assigning the prisoner to this work, it also took the burden. The structure of the prison was such that the prisoner was under a duty to follow the rules of the prison and therefore a relationship akin to an employer/employee situation was in place. The MoJ was, therefore, vicariously liable for the prisoner's negligence. As a result, vicarious liability was established in this case with damages payable by the MoJ to be assessed.

Steven John, senior associate in the Penningtons Manches LLP personal injury team which specialises in employers’ liability claims, said ‘’Vicarious liability has expanded in recent years. The two major changes over recent years have been in the application of liability for a wrongful unauthorised mode of act authorised by the employer and wrongful intentional acts of employees such as violent attacks on others. The Courts have found that, where an action is closely connected with an employee's duties and his wrongdoing, it would be just, fair and reasonable for an employer to be found vicariously liable.

"However, the circumstances in which an employer may be vicariously liable will be decided upon by its own facts. There is, therefore, is a fine line which divides cases where vicarious liability attaches itself and those where it does not. This case further seeks to define where that line is drawn and may significantly expand the responsibility of bodies such as prison authorities.’’