High Court Case Highlights Employer Liability and Workplace Safety Concerns

Citation: [2023] EWHC 2683 (KB)
Judgment on

Introduction

The case of Michael James v EA Shaw (EWHC-KBD 2023 2683 [2023] EWHC 2683 (KB)) before the High Court of Justice in the King’s Bench Division brings to light critical issues related to employer liability, workplace safety, and statutory duty with respect to accidents at work. The detailed judgment provided by Senior Master Cook addresses a spectrum of legal principles particularly relating to negligence, contributory negligence, and compliance with statutory regulations, specifically the Work at Height Regulations 2005.

Key Facts

The claimant, employed as a general labourer by the defendant, a fairground operator, suffered multiple injuries from a fall while dismantling a fairground ride called the “Freakout”. A factual dispute arose regarding the events leading to the accident, with contrasting accounts presented by the claimant and Asa Shaw, the day-to-day operator and senior manager of the defendant’s business. The incident’s core centred around whether the claimant was instructed and assisted by Asa Shaw in the task resulting in his fall and the appropriateness and safety of the system of work in place at the time of the accident.

Duty of Care and Statutory Duty

Senior Master Cook reaffirmed the employer’s duty of care, grounded in the reasonable expectation that an employer should ensure the safety of employees in the course of their work. The case illuminated the role of statutory duties in shaping the common law duty of care, particularly citing Chadwick v Ovenden [2022] EWHC 1701 (QB) in the context of the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013. The latter posits that breaches of statutory duty post-2013 enactment do not in themselves constitute a cause of action, yet they inform the common law duty of care.

Work at Height Regulations 2005

The judgment underscored the Work at Height Regulations 2005, crucial in evaluating the safety practices of the defendant. Regulations 4(1), 4(3), 6(1), 6(3), 6(4), 7, and 8 were directly applied to the facts, addressing the risk involved with the work being done at height and the imperative need for risk assessment and appropriate safety precautions.

Contributory Negligence

The court thoroughly considered the principle of contributory negligence, weighing the claimant’s responsibility in the events leading to the injury. However, the precedent in Boyle v Kodak Ltd [1969] 2 All ER 439 was noted, according to which an employer’s liability for a breach of statutory duty could not be mitigated if the actions constituting the breach were not entirely due to the employee’s doings.

Outcomes

The court found in favor of the claimant, determining primary liability due to the unsafe system of work imposed upon the claimant by his employer. Senior Master Cook concluded that the claimant’s account of events was credible and consistent, contrasting with the employer’s version which lacked corroborating evidence and contained inconsistencies.

Furthermore, the judgment dismissed any reduction for contributory negligence, highlighting the lack of formal health and safety training provided to the claimant and the influence of the employer in directing the claimant to undertake the task that led to the accident.

Conclusion

The decision in Michael James v EA Shaw illustrates the application of employer liability and the tension between duty of care and contributory negligence. It underscores the court’s role in assessing credibility of witnesses and the significance of contemporaneous evidence. This case is a reminder of the strict interpretation of safety regulations and an employer’s overarching responsibility to provide a safe working environment, reinforcing that statutory duties do influence the assessment of common law duties despite the changes brought in by the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013. The dismissal of contributory negligence in this instance clarifies the boundary of employee responsibility when directed by an employer, signifying the court’s prioritization of workplace safety over victim-blaming tendencies.

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