Employer Not Liable for Office Worker’s Chair Prank

If a negligent worker causes injury in the course of his job, compensation is generally payable by his or her employer under the principle of vicarious liability. However, as one case concerning an office prank showed, that does not apply where the worker concerned is on a frolic of his own.

A woman suffered a serious injury to her lower back when a colleague pulled her chair away just as she was about to sit on it. Lawyers on her behalf sued the local authority for which both of them worked and damages were agreed at £58,000, subject to the employer being found liable.

In dismissing her claim, a judge noted that the colleague got on well with the woman and normally behaved professionally. There was no culture of pranks in the office and he had not acted maliciously. With little more than a flick of his hand, he had moved the chair as a joke on the spur of the moment. His act of pure folly was carried out in an entirely private capacity and was unconnected to his work.

High Court Bans Proposed Royal Mail Strike as a Breach of Contract

postbox1Trade unions have a statutory right to call their members out on strike so long as the correct procedures are followed. However, as one case concerning proposed industrial action by more than 100,000 Royal Mail workers showed, that right can be cut down by agreement.

The Communication Workers Union was in dispute with Royal Mail Group Ltd. in respect of a number of matters, including pensions, pay and working hours. A ballot of the union’s members yielded a 73.7 per cent turnout and 89.1 per cent of those who voted cast their ballots in favour of a three-day strike. There was no dispute that the union had complied with the procedural requirements of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992.

However, the union and the company had reached a collective agreement in 2014 which contained detailed provisions as to what was to happen in the event of a dispute. Amongst other things, the agreement – which was expressed to be a legally enforceable contract – provided that disputes were to be referred to external mediators, appointed by Acas, and that industrial action could not be taken before such resolution measures had been exhausted.

In ruling the proposed strike unlawful and granting an injunction to restrain it, the High Court rejected the union’s arguments that the company’s reliance on the agreement was opportunistic and not in good faith. It had been entitled to refer the dispute to external mediation at the time it did and the union was bound not to call a strike until that process had been completed.

The Court noted that, from the company’s point of view, damages would not be an adequate remedy were the strike permitted to go ahead. The proposed stoppage would have a very damaging impact on both the company and its customers, would result in the loss of millions of pounds in revenue and would harm the company’s reputation for reliability in a highly competitive market.

Employment Tribunal Fee Refund Scheme Launched

Following the decision of the Supreme Court that the introduction of Employment Tribunal fees in July 2013 was unlawful (R on the application of UNISON v Lord Chancellor [2017] UKSC 51), the Ministry of Justice announced that the Government would cease charging fees immediately and take steps to refund payments made since their introduction – no easy task.

The first stage of the ET fee refund scheme has now been announced. Up to around 1,000 people will now be contacted individually and given the chance to complete applications before the full scheme is opened up in the coming weeks. The Government is also working with trade unions that have supported large multiple claims potentially involving hundreds of claimants.

Successful applicants to the scheme will not only be refunded the fee amount but will also be paid interest at a rate of 0.5 per cent, calculated from the date of the original payment up until the refund date.

This opening phase of the refund scheme will last for around four weeks. Further details, including information on how it can be accessed, will be made available when the scheme is rolled out fully.

Further information can be found here.

The Wording of Contracts is All Important – but Context Matters Too

The wording of contracts is the first port of call for judges who are asked to interpret them – but context matters too. The Court of Appeal made that point in resolving a long-running dispute that arose from the closure of a packaging factory and the loss of over 100 jobs.

factory, grainThe factory’s demise was marked by bitter dispute between the company that owned it, its employees and their trade union. Four workers were summarily dismissed after occupying the premises and the union ran a high-profile campaign which generated much damaging publicity for the company. After the factory ultimately closed, all 109 remaining employees were made redundant.

Following negotiations between the company and the union, a settlement was finally agreed, one of the terms of which was that the employees would receive ’90 days’ gross pay’. However, a dispute arose thereafter as to the correct interpretation of that phrase. The union argued that the sums payable should be worked out by calculating the average gross daily pay of each worker and multiplying that figure by 90. The company argued that the phrase referred to 90 days on the calendar, an approach that resulted in a less generous outcome for the employees.

Following a hearing, a judge preferred the union’s reading of the phrase. The Court, however, took the opposite view and allowed the company’s appeal. It noted that its task was simply to ask what the phrase meant in the context of the facts known to both the union and the company. When that holistic approach was taken, it was clear than an objective reader would have naturally understood that the mutual intention was to employ the calendar method of calculating the 90 days.