In a decision which helps to set the boundaries of the employment relationship, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has been found vicariously liable for the negligence of a prison inmate whose carelessness resulted in serious injury to the jail’s catering manager.
Although the prisoner was paid just £11.55 a week for his work in the jail’s kitchen, the Court of Appeal found that his role was a necessary one that would otherwise have had to be performed by a member of the prison’s staff and that his relationship with the Prison Service was thus ‘akin to employment’.
The catering manager, who had worked in the jail for 10 years, was on her knees trying to clean up spilt grains of rice when the prisoner walked past with two large sacks on his shoulders. He lost his balance and dropped one of them on her back, causing her serious injury. He had disobeyed an instruction to cease work whilst the spillage was dealt with and the MoJ did not dispute that he had been negligent.
A County Court judge had dismissed the catering manager’s damages claim on the basis that the relationship between the prisoner and the Prison Service was not such as to give rise to vicarious liability. However, in overturning that decision, the Court found that the judge, despite his careful decision, had erred in law.
In adopting a ‘principled, coherent and incremental approach’ to the issue, the Court noted that the prison authorities were obliged to feed the jail’s 400 inmates and that ‘someone had to do the job’ of carrying supplies to the kitchen store. The useful work carried out by the prisoner was essential to the proper functioning of the jail and, in other contexts, would normally have been assigned to an employee.
The work carried out by the prisoner had relieved the Prison Service from having to engage an employee, at markets rates of pay, to perform the same task. He had clearly carried out his tasks on behalf of the prison authorities, and for their benefit, in order to defray an expense that would otherwise fall on the state.
In those circumstances a relationship ‘akin to employment’, and thus vicarious liability, was established. The catering manager’s case would now go back to the County Court for the value of her damages claim to be assessed.