School held liable for warden`s abuse of pupils

The House of Lords has held that sexual abuse of pupils by the
warden of a school boarding house was sufficiently connected with
the work he had been employed to do for the school’s owners to be
vicariously liable for damages.

The school had been managed by the defendant company as a
commercial enterprise for the care and education of children with
emotional and behavioural difficulties. They were largely placed by
local authorities. Unbeknown to the defendants, the warden had
systematically sexually abused the appellants between 1979 and
1982. He then left the employment, but was subsequently sentenced
to seven years imprisonment for offences involving sexual

The case involved the reversal of ancient law established under
the concept of master and servant. A wrongful act for which the
master could be liable was deemed to have been done by a servant in
the course of his employment if: “It is either (a) a wrongful act
authorised by the master, or (b) a wrongful and unauthorised mode
of doing some act authorised by the master. A master … is liable
even for acts which he has not authorised, provided they are so
connected with acts which he has authorised that they may rightly
be regarded as modes – although improper modes – of doing

The concept of ‘close connection’ developed under previous law
had led the courts to take the view that sexually abusing a child
in one’s care did not justify a claim against the employer because
the warden would be acting outside his authority.

The House of Lords has now taken the view that vicarious
liability arose on the basis that the defendants had undertaken to
care for the boys through the services of the warden and that there
was a very close connection between the abuse by the warden and his
employment. The abuse had occurred in the time and on the premises
of the defendants while the warden had been caring for the pupils.
The connection between the employment and the abuse had been very
close and it would be fair and just to hold the defendants
vicariously liable.

Richard White

White and Sherwin Solicitors




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