Dilemma: reigning in practical jokers

Q I manage a small packaging company and like to encourage an informal working environment. Recently, this has extended to some members of staff playing practical jokes on each other.

However, I am concerned that if one of these jokes goes too far someone could get hurt and I, as their employer, would be liable. What does the law state in such circumstances?

A You are right to be concerned. As an employer, you can be held legally responsible for the actions of your employees under the principle of vicarious liability.

If the court takes the view that you have allowed practical jokes to be played in your employees’ working environment, even if you are not the perpetrator, then the consequences of these jokes would be considered your responsibility, and you would be liable for any injuries caused.

In the case of Hudson v Ridge Engineering, which remains the main authority on cases involving practical jokes within the workplace, an employee was injured through a practical joke played on him by a colleague. This colleague was renowned for playing practical jokes at work and had been doing so over a four-year period. The employer had been aware of the joker’s repeated conduct and had reprimanded him more than once. The court found that it was the duty of the employer to prevent this conduct and that it must have known that there could be an injury if the defendant continued with it.

It ruled that this was a simple breach of the employer’s duty to provide competent fellow employees who will not harm each other. The claimant was provided with a colleague who posed a habitual danger, and thus the court ruled that the employer should have removed this employee long before the claimant was injured, and so was held liable for not doing so.

The courts may be more lenient towards employers if the practical joke in question is an isolated incident, but ultimately your responsibility to provide a safe working environment for all your employees extends to putting a stop to these practical jokes. At an employee’s induction, make it clear that practical jokes or any kind of horseplay will not be tolerated. This is especially important when employees work with or near to dangerous equipment. This message must be clearly enforced, and anyone who engages in horseplay or practical jokes should be subject to immediate disciplinary action.

Alexandra Burdett, solicitor, commercial insurance team, Weightmans

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