Vicarious Liability And The Armed Forces


The Law Of… Understanding Who Is At Fault

When those serving in the armed services suffer injuries or worse, it is often assumed that that is part of the job, an occupational hazard. But as the armed forces braces itself for further cuts to budget, is it time to consider who is liable for preventable injuries and fatalities?

Personal Injury specialist, Anna Thompson, takes a closer look at the potential for vicarious liability claims for those soldiers who find themselves on the front line of mistakes made by those in charge.

What Is Vicarious Liability?

Vicarious liability is a situation that can occur in a workplace where the action or inaction of one person can be held responsible for the action or inaction of another. In workplaces, this could mean that employers are responsible for any employee's actions, if it can be proven that the actions took place in the course of their employment.

Employers are liable for various actions committed by employees including:

  • Bullying and harassment
  • Violent or discriminatory acts
  • Negligence
  • Libel and copyright

It is even possible to make a claim against third parties such as clients and customers, assuming they are under the control of the employer.

SAS Tragedy On The Brecon Beacons

In 2013, on the hottest day of the year, a group of SAS reservists took part in a 16 mile march across the Brecon Beacons. As a result of the 'inadequately planned' trip, 3 soldiers died after collapsing as they marched in temperatures as high as 31C.

Lance Corporals Craig Roberts and Edward Maher lost their lives on the hills after suffering from heatstroke. Corporal James Dunsby died two weeks later from multiple organ failure as a result of heatstroke suffered on the walk. 

An inquest was carried out which found two junior officers liable for negligence as they had improperly prepared for the walk, not taking into account the forecasted weather. Coroner, Louise Hunt, said the three men would have survived if they had been given, "basic treatment" of cooling, hydration and rest.

A Situation Of Vicarious Liability?

Whilst the inquest into the tragedy ended in 2015, it took until 2017 to conclude a legal battle between the families of the soldiers caught up in the mistakes and the MoD. Two junior special services soldiers now face charges of neglect. Soldier 1A was a training officer in charge of the march and another, 1B, was a training warrant officer overseeing the exercise.

However, families of the three soldiers who passed away have voiced their disappointment that the case was not treated as a situation of vicarious liability. Maher's relatives have said, "As a family, we have always felt that James', Craig's and Edwards deaths were the result of corporate failure. We do not believe that apportioning blame to one or two individuals is the best way to ensure that these tragic events do not happen again."

The inquest in 2015 had found a catalogue of errors by those who oversaw the march and that the emergency response had been disorganised and chaotic. It was also found that in the two years following the incident, no changes had been made.

Crown Immunity

In normal circumstances when fatalities occur in a workplace, the Health and Safety Executive will investigate the incident. They will potentially prosecute any employer who has demonstrated negligence, whether that be vicarious liability or other. However, the Ministry of Defence is protected against investigations and prosecution of this sort by having crown immunity, also known as sovereign immunity.

The Health and Safety Executive is a government body that oversees workplace safety. They provide guidance for employers and employees on staying safe in the workplace. But because of crown immunity, the MoD are protected against their investigations and cannot be prosecuted for events such as those that occurred on the Brecon Beacons.

There have been calls from some MPs to change this historical ruling of crown immunity to encourage more cases of vicarious liability to occur when investigating the armed forces. It has been argued that investigation through claims of vicarious liability could help bring about much needed safety changes in the MoD.

Personal Injury And Vicarious Liability

In most other workplace, vicarious liability is more easily proven. If you're injured at work because your colleague was careless, the employer you both work for can be held legally responsible for them and would likely be the person to pay compensation, if a claim was made.

Claiming compensation for vicarious liability is also a way of ensuring a lesson can be learned from mistakes made by the employer, so that future incidences can be protected against.

Anna says:

"The Brecon Beacons tragedy is just that. I find it sad that there is little encouragement to learn lessons as a result of crown immunity."

"Vicarious liability could help future recruits and soldiers from needless injury or worse."

"As cuts continue to be made to the armed forces, the worry that our soldiers are being put in precarious positions is growing."

"If you have been involved in an accident that was because of a colleague, vicarious liability means you don't need to be concerned that you would be claiming compensation against a colleague."

If you have been injured as a result of the carelessness of another, call our helpline today for a free initial consultation.

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