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Employer not liable for workplace injury caused by employee’s prank

In a recent court case, an employee played a practical joke on the claimant, who was a contractor at work, by bringing explosive pellets into work and hitting them with a hammer close to the claimant’s ear. When the pellets exploded, they caused the claimant to suffer a perforated eardrum, hearing loss and tinnitus. The claimant claimed damages from the employer for personal injury, arguing the employer was vicariously liable for the employee’s actions, and that the employer was directly liable for breaching its own duty of care. The County Court and the High Court dismissed the claimant’s case, stating that the employer was not negligent or vicariously liable, so the claimant appealed to the Court of Appeal.

The Court of Appeal has upheld the County Court’s decision (that the employer was not negligent nor vicariously liable). This decision was reached on the basis that there was not a close enough connection between the act causing the injury and the employee’s work to make it fair, just and reasonable to make the employer vicariously liable. The explosive pellet was one of the main causes of the claimant’s injuries, but the pellet was not the employer’s equipment as the employee had brought it into work.

In terms of the employer’s breach of duty, the court stated that there was not a reasonably foreseeable risk of injury arising from the practical joke. But even if there was such a risk, it would be unreasonable and unrealistic to expect an employer to put measures in place to prevent employees from engaging in horseplay. The employer expected employees to carry out their tasks using reasonable skill and care, and that included to refrain from horseplay.