Employers’ liability for personal injury at work

Employers’ liability

Workplace accident claim

The case of Vaile v Havering London Borough Council is a good example of a workplace accident claim. The decision is based on the law of negligence.

Negligence is the failure to take reasonable care for those who may be affected by your action or inaction, which causes loss and injury. Remember the law only demands reasonable care, which is a mile from a guarantee of safety. An employer should stop and think about what it asks of its employees. A description of the case will help you learn more about accidents and injury at work.

The case of Vaile v Havering London Borough Council found its way to the Court of Appeal.

Janet Vaile was a teacher assaulted by a pupil. Janet worked at a school for children with learning difficulties. The child’s statement of special educational needs identified developmental delay. The child had previously attacked his teacher by biting her. A few weeks later the child violently assaulted the teacher again, stabbing her with a pencil and shaking her head violently. The teacher suffered severe physical and psychological injury and could not work. The teacher sued her employer, the local authority, complaining of negligence and failure to provide a safe system of work.

The case revolved around three questions:

1.      Was the pupil autistic or should he have been treated as such;

2.      What risk assessments should have been carried out by the school; and

3.      Should the child have been removed from that class after the first assault, or should a specialist team been involved – called the Treatment and Education of Autistic and related Communication Handicapped Children (TEACCH).

The TEACCH team would have been able to identify the particular problems this pupil was experiencing in class.

The Judge found:

  • The child to be autistic, or within the spectrum of autistic spectrum disorder (ASD).
  • The local authority had failed in its duty to the child by not identifying the problem and providing the support of the TEACCH team.
  • These deficiencies alone were not enough to show the local authority had failed in its duty to its employee.
  • The teacher had not been trained in the methods appropriate to such a child.
  • There was no evidence to show the teaching method used was not adequate, nor was it the cause of the injuries suffered by the teacher.

The injuries and financial consequences were very serious for the teacher so the case was appealed and dealt with by the Court of Appeal. The appeal is not a rehearing of the evidence. It is usually a paper hearing based on the notes of evidence with argument from barristers. The Court of Appeal findings were:

  • The findings of fact by the Judge led to the logical conclusion the system of work was unsafe. The school should have identified the pupil’s educational problems and then made sure the teachers had the right training for the benefit of pupil and teacher.
  • Causation is the link between the negligence and the injury. Once an unsafe system of work is found and the resulting injury was of the kind which might be caused, then that is enough for the teacher’s case to succeed. The case should succeed even if the exact mechanism of the injury could not be identified.
  • While it might be difficult for Janet Vaile to show precisely what could have been done to avoid the incident and injury, had she been appropriately trained in the TEACCH techniques the probability is she would not have been injured.

The teacher’s appeal was successful.

The case is a good example of how the law of negligence works. Many workplace accident claims are now based on specific regulations, but this case shows that negligence is still an important basis on which to argue your workplace accident claim.

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