Employers can be held vicariously liable for the bullying behaviour of their staff, following a landmark ruling in the House of Lords.
In the case of Majrowski v Guy’s and St Thomas’s NHS Trust, the Lords confirmed that the Protection from Harassment Act (1997), which was originally enacted to combat stalkers, applies to harassment of all types and protects employees while they are at work and elsewhere.
Majrowski, an audit co-ordinator for Guy’s and St Thomas’s NHS Trust in London, alleged he was harassed at work by his line manager.
He made an internal complaint, which found he had been subjected to homophobic harassment.
Majrowski later sued his employers under the Protection from Harassment Act, arguing that the trust was vicariously liable for the behaviour of the manager who harassed him.
The original County Court decision said the legislation did not permit vicarious liability, but this was overturned by the Court of Appeal in March last year and the Lords upheld that decision last week.
Nick Hanning, a legal executive at law firm Reynolds Williams, which represented Majrowski, said the ruling had massive implications for employers as it provides a potential remedy for all targets of bullying and harassment, irrespective of the cause.
“The judgment effectively extends the duty on employers to protect their employees from ill treatment and could lead to a considerable number of claims being made.” Hanning said.
“This case is a clear warning to employers that, in the case of harassment, prevention is the only cure. They cannot simply pay lip service to the anti-harassment policies,” he added.
Hanning said the decision was particularly important as the time limit for claims under the Act was six years.
Legal implications of the decision
Where one employee, during the course of their employment, harasses another employee or anyone else, the employer will be vicariously liable for that harassment if a sufficiently clear link between the work and the harassment can be established.
Importantly, under the Act it is not necessary for the victim of the harassment to prove they have suffered an injury, whether physical or psychological.
Harassment is not specifically defined by the Act and may cover many types of situation in which an employee is caused alarm, anxiety or distress. Therefore, damages may be claimed in cases of bullying in which there is no apparent element of race or sex discrimination.
For more legal analysis see 25 July issue of Personnel Today.