Corporate responsibility for industrial incidents
Corporate responsibility for industrial incidents

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Corporate responsibility for industrial incidents

2.2.1 Doctrine of common employment

The influence of laissez-faire can also be seen in the way in which legal responsibility for workplace incidents developed during the course of the nineteenth century. The much reviled doctrine of ‘common employment’, deriving from the judgment of Lord Abinger in Priestley v Fowler [1837] 3 M & W, ensured that employers were not liable for the personal injuries of their workers when caused by the negligence of another worker. In Priestley v Fowler a coachman employed by the defendant overloaded a carriage making deliveries, causing it to overturn and injure the claimant, another employee who was riding on the carriage. In this case, the employer had no means of knowing about his worker’s negligent actions. The judicial fear was that the imposition of liability on employers in such circumstances would lead to a proliferation of similar claims, a resultant loss of control by employers and an increased cost of production, which would, in turn, adversely affect economic growth.

Implicit in the doctrine of common employment was the assumption that when workers contract to work they know, or ought to know, what risks they are exposing themselves to. This was taken to include the knowledge that the want of care on the part of a fellow worker may be injurious or fatal and an acceptance that it is a risk which an employer cannot be expected to offer protection from (Alderson, B. in Hutchinson v York, Newcastle and Berwick RY [1850]). This judicial approach was reflected in the fact that up until the late nineteenth century employers could raise the defence of consent (known as volenti non fit injuria – a person who consents to the risk of harm from an activity cannot then make a claim for compensation for personal injuries and damage that result from that activity) to claims brought by workers injured as a result of negligence in the workplace. In addition, workers who were found to be contributory negligent in failing to have sufficient regard to their own safety even in a small way were denied any compensation from their employer. There was little or no recognition of the economic reality that in most cases workers have no practical alternative but to continue to work and to subject themselves to the risk of unsafe workplace practices. Thus, employers were effectively immune from liability for industrial incidents and there was little or no incentive for employers to develop safe industrial practices.


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