Supreme Court

Cox v Ministry of Justice

[2016] UKSC 10

[2016] WLR (D) 110

2015 Oct 12; 2016 March 2

Lord Neuberger of Abbotsbury PSC, Baroness Hale of Richmon DPSC, Lord Dyson MR, Lord Reed, Lord Toulson JJSC

Vicarious liability — Relationship akin to employment — Prisoner — Prisoner paid to assist prison catering manager in moving kitchen supplies — Manager suffering injury when prisoner ignoring instruction — Whether Ministry of Justice vicariously liable for prisoner’s negligence


The claimant, who was working as the catering manager in a prison, was moving supplies which had been delivered with the help of prisoners who were on Prison Service pay, when a bag of rice was dropped spilling its contents on the floor. The claimant instructed the prisoners to stop work until the rice was cleared. Ignoring her instruction, one prisoner attempted to get past and dropped a heavy bag of rice on the claimant’s back, injuring her. She brought proceedings against the Ministry of Justice as defendant, claiming damages for personal injury on the basis, inter alia, that it was vicariously liable for the negligence of the prisoner. The judge found that the prisoner in question had been negligent but, dismissing the claim, held that the defendant was not vicariously liable for that negligence. On the claimant’s appeal the Court of Appeal, allowing the appeal, held that the defendant was vicariously liable.

On the defendant’s appeal—


Held, appeal dismissed. In non-contract of employment cases, vicarious liability in tort could be imposed upon a defendant in respect of harm caused by the wrongful act or omission of another individual where the harm had been done by that individual when carrying on activities which were an integral part of the defendant’s business activities and for its benefit, rather than being entirely attributable to a recognisably independent business of his own or of a third party, and where the commission of the wrongful act was a risk created by the defendant by assigning those activities to the individual in question. Where such criteria existed, the defendant did not have to be carrying on activities of a commercial nature. As the criteria had been designed to ensure that liability was only imposed where it was fair, just and reasonable to do so, the court would not normally have to conduct a separate assessment as to the fairness, justice and reasonableness of the result in the particular case, but it might do so where, as here, the case concerned circumstances which had not previously been the subject of an authoritative judicial decision. Prisoners working in prison kitchens were integrated into the operation of the prison, so that the activities assigned to them by the prison service formed an integral part of the activities which it carried on in the furtherance of its aims, in particular, the activity of providing meals for prisoners. They were placed by the prison service in a position where there was a risk that they might commit a variety of negligent acts within the field of activities assigned to them, and they worked under the direction of prison staff. The claimant had been injured as a result of the negligence of a prisoner working in the kitchen carrying on the activities assigned to him. Since the criteria for vicarious liability had been met and the imposition of such liability was fair, reasonable and just, the defendant was liable for the claimant’s injuries (post, paras 16–17, 24, 29–30, 32, 40–42).

Viasystems (Tyneside) Ltd v Thermal Transfer (Northern) Ltd [2006] QB 510, CA; E v English Province of Our Lady of Charity [2013] QB 722, CA and Various Claimants v Catholic Child Welfare Society [2013] 2 AC 1, SC(E) applied.

Decision of the Court of Appeal [2014] EWCA Civ 132; [2015] QB 107; [2014] 3 WLR 1036; [2014] ICR 713 affirmed.


James Eadie QC, Kate Grange and Stephen Kosmin (instructed by Treasury Solicitor) for the defendant.

Robert Weir QC and Robert O’Leary (instructed by Thompsons, Cardiff) for the claimant.

Reported by: Colin Beresford, Barrister