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Employer Not Responsible for Consequences of Workplace Practical Joke

Practical jokes in the workplace can have grave consequences which are anything but funny – but to what extent do employers bear legal responsibility for such horseplay? In ruling on a personal injury case, the High Court gave important guidance on that issue.

The case concerned a fitter who was working at a quarry as an external contractor. He was bending over to pick up a length of steel when a worker who was directly employed by the quarry’s operator placed two pellet targets on a bench close to his ear. He hit them with a hammer, causing a loud explosion. The fitter suffered a perforated eardrum and permanent hearing loss.

The fitter launched proceedings on the basis that the employer bore both direct and indirect – or vicarious – legal responsibility for the worker’s foolish act. The employer, however, argued that such horseplay fell wholly outside the scope of the worker’s duties and that the incident was in any event not reasonably foreseeable. The fitter’s damages claim was dismissed by a judge.

Rejecting his appeal against that outcome, the Court noted that the employer was aware of tension having developed on the site between external contractors and directly employed personnel. That friction, however, had been expressed verbally and was not such as to put the employer on notice of a physical risk to the fitter.

Horseplay, indiscipline and malice were not matters that required inclusion in a risk assessment and the Court found that it would be expecting too much of the employer to devise and implement a policy or rules that descended to the level of banning practical jokes. The worker’s act of foolishness in no way advanced the employer’s business and it was not reasonably foreseeable that the fitter might suffer injury at his hands.

Expressing sympathy for the fitter, the Court noted that practical jokes are seldom funny and often amount to a form of bullying. Although the worker did not intend to cause injury, such jokes have a habit of going seriously wrong. The fitter was an innocent man who had permanent disability inflicted upon him but legal responsibility for his plight could not be placed at the employer’s door.