In a recent judgement, the House of Lords has afforded further protection to employees who are affected by harassment.
Employers’ liability for harassment is widened
The House of Lords in Majrowski v Guy's & St Thomas' NHS Trust has upheld the landmark decision by the Court of Appeal that an employer can be vicariously liable in damages for an employee's breach of the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 (the "Act"). This means that employees (and ex-employees) can now bring claims against their employer for damages if they are subjected to harassment in the course of their employment. This is not limited to harassment under the discrimination legislation on the grounds of sex, race, disability, sexual orientation and religion/belief (and as of 1 October age) but to any form of harassment on whatever grounds.
Mr Majrowski was employed by Guys & St Thomas' from 1998 to 1999, during which time he made a formal complaint of harassment against his manager, whom he claimed had bullied and intimidated him. Guys & St Thomas' investigated the complaint and found that harassment had occurred. Majrowski's employment ended in unrelated circumstances shortly afterwards. However, in 2003 Majrowski brought a claim in the county court, claiming damages under the Act for the distress, anxiety and consequential loss caused by the harassment he had suffered.
The case was struck out by the county court, which believed that the purpose of the Act was to combat stalking, not to give employees additional employment rights. However, this was overturned by the Court of Appeal. The House of Lords unanimously upheld the Court of Appeal's decision, stating that there was no indication from the legislation that employers were not to be vicariously liable in this way.
This decision not only means that employees can bring claims for a much wider range of harassment, but offers a potentially more attractive route than a traditional employment claim. For example, there is a six year time limit for bringing a claim, rather than three months in the employment tribunal. Also, unlike the employment tribunal, costs are normally recoverable in the civil courts and there is the possibility that legal aid will be available.
As we said in the last edition of Marketinglaw, all employers would be wise to carry out regular training to remind employees of the importance of a work environment free from unlawful discrimination, harassment, bullying or victimisation. In light of this case, any such training should no longer be restricted to the grounds of harassment contained in the discrimination legislation but to all forms of bullying and harassment for which employers could now find themselves liable.