Companies generally bear legal liability for misdeeds committed by their employees in the context of their work, but does the same apply to self-employed contractors? The High Court tackled that issue in a group action concerning bank workers who claimed to have been sexually abused by a doctor in the course of pre-employment health checks (Various Claimants v Barclays Bank plc).

Under an agreement with the bank, the doctor had carried out medical assessments and examinations on prospective employees, the majority of them young women, between 1968 and 1984. He has since died, but 126 of those whom he had examined launched proceedings against the bank on the basis that he had subjected them to sexual assaults.

The bank pointed out that he was an independent contractor who had carried out the examinations at his own surgery. In ruling that the bank bore indirect – vicarious – responsibility for his actions, however, the Court noted that his alleged victims had been required to undergo the examinations prior to taking up their posts.

Although the bank was an innocent party, it had created the relevant risk when it referred its prospective employees to the doctor, and the alleged sexual assaults were inextricably interwoven with the work that the doctor had done for the bank’s benefit. The Court acknowledged that had the claims been made earlier, the doctor and his estate could have had the financial means to meet them. In the circumstances, however, taking action against the bank was the only realistic means by which the alleged victims could obtain compensation and the Court was of the view that it was fair, just and reasonable for their cases to proceed.

The decision that vicarious liability did extend to the independent contractor in these circumstances will be a matter of disquiet to those who contract with others to perform a similar function. If you are concerned at the effect this ruling could have on your business, contact us on 0208 263 6080 for advice on your individual circumstances.