Woodward v Mayor of Hastings
Court of Appeal
Citations:  KB 174;  2 All ER 565.
During the war, a grammar school had to be relocated. The children were accommodated in a church school, and began using the church school’s staff. Due to the negligence of a cleaner employed by the church, a student slipped on an icy step and sustained injuries. He sued the defendants, the grammar school’s board of governors, in negligence.
- Were the governors vicariously liable for the cleaner’s negligence?
- Did the governors owe the children a duty of care in relation to acts performed by employees of a third-party?
- Were the governors in breach of any duty they owed?
The Court of Appeal held in favour of the claimant. The governors had sufficient control over the cleaner that they were vicariously liable for their negligence. Even were this not the case, the Court of Appeal argued that the governors owed a personal duty to the students to ensure the premises was safe for the children, and this duty was non-delegable.
Since the cleaner was aware of the danger, the governors could be taken to be aware of the danger. As such, they were in breach of their duty for failing to do anything about it.
This Case is Authority For…
Those operating premises for a particular purpose owe a duty to take reasonable steps to ensure that those invited onto the land are safe in using the premises for that purpose. This duty is non-delegable. These principles are now enshrined in the occupier’s liability statutes.
The Court of Appeal commented that occupiers are more likely to be liable for the acts of independent contractors where the the task entrusted to them is mundane and could be performed by anyone. They are less likely to be liable for specialist tasks, in which case their main duty is ensuring that the person selected to perform the task is competent.
This is an early case which shows that vicarious liability is not limited to the defendant’s employees. The principles of vicarious liability have since been expanded and clarified in the Catholic Child Welfare case.