Business trip | Employer found liable after worker's death

Employer found liable after worker's death

For many employers, business trips are crucial. While video conferencing and phone calls serve a purpose in the workplace, face-to-face meetings are often important for closing business and for fostering personal interactions.

Yet, a French employer has been found accountable for the death of an employee who died on a business trip whilst having sex with a woman – The BBC reported.

The employee who worked for a railway construction firm near the French capital – and who has been referred to as Xavier X in the case – suffered from a cardiac arrest while having sex with a stranger during his business trip in 2013.

A court in Paris ruled that the employee was the ‘victim of a professional accident’ and the employer has been ordered to pay his family a large sum of money, The Mirror reported.

While the employer argued that they weren’t responsible for his death because the employee wasn’t carrying out professional duties when he had a cardiac arrest – and the incident didn’t take place in the hotel room the firm had booked him – Judges explained that French law states that an employer is responsible for accidents occurring on business trips.

While there are discrepancies between French and UK law, HR Grapevine caught up with several employment lawyers to find out whether a UK employer would be liable for the same incident.

Jacqueline Watts, Director at A City Law Firm, explained: “The UK courts have yet to determine the extent of an employer’s liability for the death or injury to employees engaged in personal activities whilst working abroad, however persuasive law can be taken from recent cases.

“Generally, the principles which must be considered in line with an employer’s duty of care to their employees are the foreseeability of any risks or dangers involved (at the place of work as well as the employee’s ability to access the place) and the causal link between the death or injury and the employer’s acts or omissions. UK case law has demonstrated that these two principles are critical in determining an employer’s liability.”

‘Liability depends upon the activities’

A point raised by David Ward, Associate Solicitor at Blacks Solicitors, is that the employers’ liability for the death of an employee on a work trip would “depend on the activities they were partaking in and precisely at what point in the day”.

He uses an example to illustrate the point. Ward added: “An example would be employees on a trip together for two nights who go out on the first night for an evening meal (on expenses) and end up in a brawl with each other or another group leading to one of their deaths.

"In line with recent case law, this could be considered working time and therefore, it is possible that the employer could be liable for events which occurred, especially after a fight between employees.

“Contrast this with an employee away on business for a longer period, who at the weekend chose to go on a skydiving trip. Perhaps her parachute failed to open leading to her death. It would be hard to see how an employer could be held liable in these circumstances.

“In the French case in question, it is hard to say whether this would cause employer liability for a UK company – it is unlikely. If it were a stranger, in the early hours, this would not be working time and would not be considered to be a work-related activity. If it were two colleagues during the working day, it would be an interesting argument,” he concluded.

 ‘Taking reasonable steps to reduce risks’

Stuart Snape, Managing Partner at Graham Coffey and Co Solicitors told HR Grapevine that simply, employers have a duty of care to assess the risks to an employee and take steps to reduce any risks.

He explained: “This can become more difficult when the employer has no control over the place in question, or for example where the employee is sent on a business trip.

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“This is where the “reasonably practicable” test becomes so important. Making sure any risk to the employee is reduced to the lowest level possible is always the target. Make sure the travel is planned in advance, that the employee knows where they are going and how they are getting there and what they are expected to do when they arrive.   

“An employer is only ever likely to be found liable for an injury sustained by the employee where there has been a failure to take those reasonable steps and those failures have led to the injury or some cases the death of the employee,” Snape concluded.

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