By: 2 November 2015
Hill Dickinson secures major vicarious liability success for Stoke City

The High Court has handed down a judgment in a case involving Stoke City Football Club which has significant ramifications for the issue of vicarious liability in personal injury claims.

Hill Dickinson has been acting for Stoke City and its insurers in a high-profile case (GB v Stoke City Football Club Limited (1) Peter David Fox (2)) involving the club’s former first team goalkeeper and an apprentice.

The claimant, an apprentice at Stoke City from 1986-88, alleged that he was assaulted on two occasions by the first team goalkeeper through a practice known as ‘gloving’. He alleged that as a result of these serious intimate (but not sexualised) assaults he suffered physical and psychiatric injury and also lost the chance of a professional football career. He alleged that the goalkeeper was directly liable for the assaults and the club was vicariously liable as employer.

The goalkeeper denied the assaults. The club argued that even if the assaults had happened, they were not so closely connected to employment to attract vicarious liability.

Although he had misgivings about whether some sort of prank lay at the root of the case, the judge dismissed the allegations. Extensive cross-examination discredited a number of the claimant’s witnesses who had spoken to the press about selling their stories and were pursuing their own claims.

The judge also said that even if the assaults had occurred he would not have held the club vicariously liable. He concluded that, if vicarious liability did apply, it would fall little short of holding that any employer should be vicariously liable for any assault on any apprentice or trainee by a full-time employee in all circumstances.

Alastair Gillespie, a partner at Hill Dickinson said: “This judgment is a welcome development for defendants and their insurers. A vicarious liability finding in this case could have affected not only sporting clubs but, in theory, any hierarchical organisation. It would have represented an extension of the vicarious liability doctrine and encouraged further claims. As historical claims of this nature are regularly allowed to proceed out of time, legacy insurers could have faced significant unexpected liabilities on numerous risks.

“Over the last 15 years vicarious liability has come to be regarded as a strict liability concept, the scope and application of which have been continually and considerably extended. Alongside the recent cases of Mohamud –v- WM Morrison, Weddell –v- Barchester Healthcare and Graham –v- Commercial, this is another example of the courts adopting a more robust approach to this fundamental liability principle.

“The next development in this area, the Supreme Court decision in the cases of Mohamud and Cox -v- MoD, is awaited with interest.”