Employers are under a general duty of care, but also under Section 28 of the Factories Act 1961 have a duty to ensure, as far as is reasonably practicable, their passageways are kept free from any obstruction. The court ruled that in this case it was not reasonably practicable for them to have foreseen the accident nor taken action to prevent it happening by removing the obstruction.
Whether or not an accident occurs through a practical joke is of no relevance in civil law, as the motive is irrelevant if the conduct is unlawful.
Commentators have pointed out that the situation is more complex in Criminal Law. Offences can occur when employees have not taken sufficient care or given employees reasonable guidance on the inherent dangers. For example, strange initiation rites for apprentices have been used in industries leading to injuries which have occasionally reached the courts. The courts have generally held that such horseplay, even if well-intentioned, cannot be a defence against physical injury.
No school has been found guilty of criminal negligence for not preventing practical jokes, but many have been held liable in civil law for accidents caused by unruly behaviour. The court will always take into account all the circumstances and make a judgment on whether an employer could reasonably have foreseen an accident and have taken reasonable steps, including guidance on behaviour, to prevent such an occurrence.
Chris Lowe is legal adviser to the Secondary Heads Association