The Supreme Court of Appeal has again extended the scope of vicarious liability. A security company was found liable for a murder committed by their site supervisor in an attempt to rob the deceased who was the financial manager at the premises which the security company were required to guard.

The court held that placing the murderer in a position where he had full access to the premises created a material risk that he might abuse his powers. The security company had the responsibility to protect the safety of persons on the premises. Placing the murderer as site supervisor in charge of this responsibility created a significant link between the security company’s business and the harm suffered by the deceased’s wife as a result of the murder.

The court said the matter was ‘by no means free of difficulty’ but found there was a close enough link established between the business of the security company and the death of the deceased, sufficient to create vicarious liability on behalf of the security company even though the motive of the murderer, who had got into debt he could not manage, was robbery for his own purposes.

The general principle is that an employer is vicariously liable for a wrong committed by an employee during the course or scope of their employment. Difficulties arise when the employee commits an intentional wrong entirely for the employee’s own purposes.

The courts now accept that though an act may be done by an employee solely for their own interests and purposes, if there is a sufficiently close link between the employee’s acts and the purposes and business of the employer, the employer may be vicariously liable.

The site supervisor was able to enter and exit from the office area without detection or concern, he had intimate knowledge of the layout and security services, an instruction to make unannounced visits to the premises at any time, knowledge of who was working late and possession of override keys to the office area. This created a material risk that he might abuse his powers.

There seems to be little escape for security companies and their insurers from vicarious liability for the acts of employees.

The case is Stallion Security v Van Staden.