Reasonable foreseeability and workplace injuries

A legal cornerstone of PI law…

The law requires that for someone to be compensated for another’s negligence, they must have suffered harm that is not too remote or unpredictable a result of the culpable party’s actions.

Or, more simply, the injury must have had an element of likelihood.

The standard test used in this respect is whether the damage is a “reasonably foreseeable” consequence of the negligent behaviour.  This is a “common law” principle - developed by judicial decisions rather than legislation.

Exceptions for workplace injuries

The reasonable foreseeability test had, until recently, minimal importance in the context of workplace injuries. This is because the law in this area is based mainly on legislation that imposes a tougher regime on employers than the normal common-law rules on negligence.

Specifically, statutes like the Workplace (Health, Safety, and Welfare) Regulations 1992 and the Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations 1998 set “strict liability” rules for employers.

This meant that if an employer breached their duties they were liable for injuries caused to employers regardless of whether these were foreseeable.

Legal reform

In 2012 a government-commissioned report by Professor Löfstedt criticised the strict liability rules as being unfairly weighted in favour of employees, and encouraging a “compensation culture”.

In response, the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act was introduced and came into force in October 2013. In their drive to reduce red tape, the government initiated reforms that went even further than the recommendations of the Löfstedt report.

As a result of the Act, liability for workplace injuries reverted to the common law rules on negligence (with some exceptional cases remaining under the strict liability rules). If you want more information you can read more about the impact of certain cases.

This means that employees seeking compensation for workplace injuries must show that they were a reasonably foreseeable result of the employer’s negligence.

Impact of the changes

Some have welcomed the changes as a boost to businesses, whereas others say they will cause standards in workplace health and safety to drop and make it unreasonably difficult for employees to get compensation for injuries.

From a legal perspective there will be a period of evolution as courts readjust to applying common law principles of negligence to workplace accidents in place of the strict liability rules.

At this stage it is too early to tell what the long term effects on the legal landscape and workplace environment will be, but significant changes are inevitable.

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