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Vicarious Liability

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The Supreme Court has just issued an important judgment on the scope of vicarious liability, the principle that an Employer can be legally responsible for wrongs committed by its employees. Although the principle has existed for nearly 200 years, cases continue to be brought that reset the scope of the principle.

The latest of these cases is WM Morrisons Supermarket PLC v various claimants.

Put briefly, the case arose when an Employee who worked in Morrisons' IT department received a disciplinary warning after minor misconduct. In response, the employee stole payroll data for the entire workforce and uploaded this data to the Internet, as well as posting the information to 3 newspapers.

The employee concerned was convicted of criminal offences and imprisoned.

The Claimants in this case were 9000+ employees of Morrisons who claimed breach of confidence, a breach of the Data Protection Act and misuse of private information. The issue in the case that was appealed all the way to the Supreme Court was whether Morrisons were vicariously liable for the actions of its employee.

In the last important vicarious liability case to reach the (then) House of Lords in 2001 the test was defined  as being "whether the action(s) of the employee was so closely connected to the employment that it would be fair and just to hold the employer vicariously liable"

After a long analysis of previous case law in the area, the unanimous judgment  of the Court found that although the Employee concerned had the processing of payroll data as part of his job role, the disclosure of data on the Internet was not part of his job function, nor was he authorised to do so, Further, although there was a clear link between the employee's access to the data through his job and the releasing of the data onto the Internet, merely being in receipt of items through his employment that allowed him to commit an unlawful act was not sufficient to create vicarious liability. Thirdly, the Court held the employee was not furthering his employer's business when he committed the unlawful acts.

Therefore, Morrisons were not liable to the employees affected by the employee’s acts.

This case is seen by many as reducing the scope of vicarious liability.