Breach and Causation
The laws surrounding common law and civil liability cases for occupational injuries are complex. This article concerns one of the most vital, and most basic, elements of such a case: the proving, or disproving, of breach and causation.
ResponsibilitiesBy definition, employers accept certain responsibilities under common law, in addition to their general requirement to abide by criminal (or statute) law. In the case of the latter, employers are obviously as vulnerable as any other party to charges of murder or manslaughter, which occur infrequently but more frequently than by rights they should.
Potentially less seriously, however, breaches of common law (that is, law set by previous case precedents) or statutory duty are common. As an employee it is important to understand the ways in which you may be able to benefit from your rights under common law in the event of an accident; it is similarly important for employers to understand ways in which they can fight a spurious case.
In any case regarding an apparent breach of health and safety duty on the part of an employer, three main requirements must be fulfilled in order for the complainant to succeed. The first of these is the establishment of a duty of care. In most cases, proving that the defendant has this duty is simple as, by dint of the fact that they are an employer, they will have responsibilities under statute or common law. General information regarding the nature of these responsibilities is available elsewhere on this site.
Breach of dutyThe second element is a requirement to prove that this duty has been breached by the employer. This can be more difficult to prove. For example, in the event of a machinery accident in a factory how can one prove that it was negligence on the part of the employer, and not carelessness on the part of the worker, that caused the accident?
Proving a breach of duty can rely on the evidence of witnesses, as well as important documentary evidence. For example, if it can be proved that safety guards were not available when they should have been, or employees were not provided with the correct equipment, then a breach can be said to have occurred. It may be necessary to look at documentary evidence from the employer in order to help with this.
CausationThe final element is that of causation. In basic terms, in order for the case to be successful it must be proved that it was the breach of duty established earlier that was the major contributing factor to the injury. As was established in a precedent-setting case in 1961, a prima facie (that is, self-evident) assumption of causation can be made if the injury or illness is consistent with one that would have been sustained or suffered by another individual in the same circumstances, and if the conditions in which the employee was working were 'likely' to cause such an injury or illness.
For employers, there is generally little point in attempting to fight the first two elements. Rather, efforts tend to be concentrated on causation as the most likely way of having the case thrown out. This relies on a thorough investigation of similar previous cases, as precedent will be what the court is looking for. It is also worth remembering that, even if causation is established, the employee may have inadvertently contributed to their own injury; the article on 'contributory negligence' elsewhere on this site investigates this in more detail.