WM Morrison Supermarkets plc v Various Claimants

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The decision of the supreme court in regards to WM Morrison Supermarkets plc v Various Claimants, was that Morrisons was not vicariously liable for the acts of Skelton, an employee who, pursuing a personal vendetta, illicitly copied personal payroll data relating to Morrison’s entire workforce given to him in his role as a senior IT auditor to publish it online. But why did this occur and why did the supreme court decide on this ruling?

After receiving a verbal warning after disciplinary proceedings for minor misconduct, Mr Skelton developed a grudge against the appellant. Skelton, as a senior IT auditor, was given the job of transmitting payroll data for the appellant’s entire workforce to its external auditors, a task he had previously carried out. Although Skelton did this, he also made and kept a personal copy of the data. In early 2014, he uploaded this file containing the data to a public and accessible website as well as sending it to multiple newspapers, posing as a concerned member of the public who had found it online. The newspapers, rather than posting the information, alerted the appellant, which took immediate steps to have the data removed and alerted the police. Skelton was arrested and has since been prosecuted and imprisoned.

The supreme court had to decide whether Morrisons should be held vicariously liable for the leaking of their personal data by an employee. It examined whether there was a close enough connection between the leaking of the data and the nature of the employee’s role using the close connections test.  The test was devised so that it would be just and reasonable to hold the employer vicariously liable. Numerous factors that led the supreme court to their ruling entailed: the extent to which the wrongful act furthers the employer’s aim, the extent of power conferred on the employee in relation to the victim and the extent to which the wrongful act was related to friction, confrontation or intimacy. 

The case of WM Morrison Supermarkets plc v Various Claimants has indisputably been an impactful case due to its connection to the law of vicarious liability, as a result of its unique nature in which previously neglected elements, such as the motive of the employee, were brought to light and considered. However, whether this provided clarity or uncertainty is disputable.

Following the passing of the Supreme Courts’ judgment on the case of WM Morrison Supermarkets plc v Various Claimants, the laws on vicarious liability have arguably been clarified, and the extent of an organisation’s vicarious liability for the actions of others has been restricted. The court ruled that the online disclosure was not part of Skelton’s ‘field of activities’ that the employer had permitted him to do as a senior auditor, and the wrongdoing was therefore not within the course of his employment. This provided guidance as to the nature of the acts that are likely to be classified as being “within the course of employment.” 

Moreover, their judgement clarified that motive, on the part of the employee, was indeed relevant in deciding whether or not to hold an employer vicariously liable. Whereas in prior cases such as Mattis v Pollock (2003), where the claimant was stabbed by a doorman employed by a nightclub, which although was an act motivated by revenge and vengeance, vicarious lability was established, showing that motive is an aspect that wasn’t as highly regarded, thus contrasting to how highly regarded it was in the judgement of the WM Morrison Supermarkets plc v Various Claimants case. Therefore it was clarified that this should be taken into deeper consideration in following cases.

It’s plausible that the judgement in the case caused some uncertainty as in certain areas it didn’t follow precedent. For instance the previous case of Mohamud v WM Morrison Supermarkets plc (2016), despite having vengeful motives as Mohamud had confronted him, Morrisons was held vicariously liable. This causes uncertainty as to how highly motive should be regarded. Having claimed that the judgment of the case was not intended to change the law of vicarious liability, but rather to follow existing precedents, is ironic as they have disregarded prior examples in which similar events occurred. 

While it remains to be seen how this will play out in practice, this case seemingly provided useful clarification on vicarious liability. The case provided more guidance on the nature of the acts that are likely to be classified as being ‘within the course of employment’, and also made it clear that motive on the part of the employee is indeed relevant when deciding whether or not to hold an employer vicariously liable.


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