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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  18 September 2019

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Vicarious liability was, and it remains, curiously unsatisfactory. After a period of stability from the Middle Ages into the early modern period in the late seventeenth into the early eighteenth century, the existing law of vicarious liability began to be challenged. The mid-nineteenth century saw another reappraisal coinciding with the rise of notions of fault. The period that follows, from the late nineteenth century until after the Second World War period has not attracted much comment. One key debate in this period and earlier which provides a useful lens to examine the doctrine was whether vicarious liability should be properly characterised as a master's or servant's tort theory. The history of the doctrine during this period goes some way to explaining why the modern law remains incoherent.

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Professor, Deputy Dean, Faculty of Law, University of Auckland.

I am grateful to Dr Stelios Tofaris and the anonymous reviewers for their comments. Any errors remain my own. I would also like to thank Professor David Ibbetson for checking a reference that was unavailable to me in New Zealand.


1 Baty, T., Vicarious Liability: A Short History of the Liability of Employers, Principals, Partners, Associations and Trade-union Members, with a Chapter on the Laws of Scotland and Foreign States (Oxford 1916), 7Google Scholar. For Baty's extraordinary life, see Hasegawa, M. (ed.) and Baty, T., Alone in Japan: the reminiscences of an international jurist resident in Japan 1916–1954 (Tokyo 1959)Google Scholar.

2 For example, the tree is the subject of a poem by Pushkin, “The Upas Tree”.

3 Howe, M. De Wolfe (ed.), The Pollock-Holmes Letters Correspondence of Sir Frederick Pollock & Mr Justice Holmes 1894–1932, vol. 1 (Cambridge 1942), 233 (Pollock to Holmes, March 1916)Google Scholar.

4 (1916) 32 L.Q.R. 226.

5 Ibid., at p. 227.


6 Mohamud v WM Morrison Supermarkets plc. [2016] A.C. 677.

7 Ibid., at p. 695.


8 Ibid.


9 Some recent examples that were appealed to the highest court include: Lister v Hesley Hall [2002] 1 A.C. 215; Catholic Child Welfare Society and others v Various Claimants [2013] 2 A.C. 1; Woodland v Swimming Teachers Association and others [2014] A.C. 537. There are also numerous examples in other jurisdictions including: Bazeley v Curry [1999] 2 S.C.R. 534; Jacobi v Griffiths [1999] 2 S.C.R. 570; EDG v Hammer [2003] 2 S.C.R. 459; New South Wales v Lepore (2003) 212 C.L.R. 511. For a critical reflection on the recent authorities, see P. Giliker, “Analysing Institutional Liability for Child Sexual Abuse in England and Wales and Australia: Vicarious Liability, Non-delegable Duties and Statutory Intervention” [2018] C.L.J. 506.

10 Catholic Child Welfare Society [2013] 2 A.C. 1; Cox v Ministry of Justice [2016] A.C. 660; Armes v Nottinghamshire County Council [2017] 3 W.L.R. 1000. A recent Court of Appeal decision suggests that there can be vicarious liability for the torts of independent contractors: Barclays Bank Plc. v Various Claimants [2018] EWCA (Civ.) 1670.

11 Prince Alfred College v ADC (2016) 258 C.L.R. 134, 148.

12 Morgan, J., “Tort, Insurance and Incoherence” (2004) 67 M.L.R. 384CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 393.

13 Lister v Romford Ice and Cold Storage Co. Ltd. [1957] A.C. 555.

14 For example, see Weir, Tony's posthumously published case note: “Subrogation and Indemnity” [2012] C.L.J. 1CrossRefGoogle Scholar. I am grateful to one of the reviewers for drawing this note to my attention.

15 Peel, E. and Groudkamp, J., Winfield and Jolowicz on Tort, 19th ed. (London 2014), 21-001Google Scholar; Jones, M. (ed.), Clerk & Lindsell on Torts, 22nd ed. (London 2018), 6.60Google Scholar; Giliker, P., Vicarious Liability in Tort: A Comparative Perspective (Cambridge 2010), 1316CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

16 For a useful short summary, see Stevens, R., “Vicarious Liability or Vicarious Action?” (2007) 123 L.Q.R. 30Google Scholar.

17 One modern supporter of the master's tort theory makes this point: Stevens, R., Torts and Rights (Oxford 2007), 260CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Giliker, Vicarious Liability, p. 13 also accepts this historical analysis.

18 Ibbetson, D.J., “The Tort of Negligence in the Common Law in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries” in Schrage, E. (ed.), Negligence: The Comparative Legal History of the Law of Torts (Berlin 2002), 229–71Google Scholar.

19 Ibbetson, D.J., A Historical Introduction to the Law of Obligations (Oxford 1999), 182Google Scholar. Roscoe Pound made a similar point in 1923: Pound, R., Interpretations of Legal History (Cambridge 1923), 110Google Scholar.

20 Gray, A., Vicarious Liability Critique and Reform (Oxford 2018)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; R. Leow, “Companies in Private Law: Attributing Acts and Knowledge”, PhD, Cambridge, 2017. I am grateful to Dr Leow for making her thesis available to me.

21 Brodie, D., Enterprise Liability and the Common Law (Cambridge 2010)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

22 Majrowski v Guy's and St. Thomas’ NHS Trust [2007] 1 A.C. 224, 230.

23 For a helpful discussion, see Ibbetson, Obligations, pp. 69–70. For a much more detailed treatment of the early law, see Swain, W., “Vicarious Liability, a Pailful of Slops and Other Hazards” in Barker, K. and Grantham, R. (eds.), Apportionment in Private Law (Oxford 2018), 89110Google Scholar.

24 For example, in the way that Lord Toulson finds something akin to non-delegable duties and possibly enterprise liability in the old cases: Mohamud [2016] A.C. 677, 684–87.

25 Arnold, M.S., “Law and Fact in the Medieval Jury Trial: Out of Sight, Out of Mind” (1974) 18 Am.J.Leg.Hist. 267CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Mitnick, J., “From Neighbor-witness to Judge of Proofs: The Transformation of the English Civil Juror” (1988) 23 Am.J.Leg.Hist. 201CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

26 Sometimes these issues came to light by way of special verdicts, see Palmer, R., English Law in the Age of the Black Death 1348–1381 (Chapel Hill 1993), 156–59Google Scholar.

27 This can be seen in the way that judges dealt with questions of duty and breach in negligence, see Ibbetson, “The Tort of Negligence”, pp. 240–48.

28 For an overview of the tort actions, see Baker, J.H., An Introduction to English Legal History, 5th ed. (Oxford 2019), 6771CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

29 Vicarious liability was not traditionally available in trespass, see Swain, “Vicarious Liability”, pp. 97–99.

30 There were earlier precedents in some of these situations in trespass writs, see Arnold, M.M. (ed.), Select Cases of Trespass from the King's Courts 1307–1399 (vol. I) Selden Society Vol. 100 (London 1984), lxivlxxGoogle Scholar.

31 J.H. Baker, “Trespass, Case, and the Common Law of Negligence 1500–1700” in Schrage, Negligence, pp. 47, 60–62.

32 Beaulieu v Finglam (1401) Y.B. Pas. 2 Hen. IV pl. 6, fo. 18 reproduced in Baker, J.H., Baker and Milsom Sources of English Legal History, 2nd ed. (Oxford 2010), 610–11Google Scholar.

33 Caunt's Case (1430) Y.B. Mich. 9 Hen. VI pl. 37, fo. 53 reproduced in Baker, ibid., at pp. 561–62.

34 For an example, see Anon (1471) Y.B. Trin. Edw. IV fo. 6, pl. 10 reproduced in Baker, Sources, pp. 563–65.

35 Tuberville v Stamp (1697) 1 Ld. Raym. 264, 12 Mod. 152, Carth. 425, Comb. 459, Comyns 32, Holt 9, Skin. 681.

36 Ibid., at pp. 264–65. For the influence of Holt C.J., see Lord Toulson, Mohamud [2016] A.C. 677, 684.


37 Boucher v Lawson (1734) Cas. T. Hard. 85, 88 (by counsel for the defendant).

38 Middleton v Fowler (1699) 2 Salk. 282; Jones v Hart (1699) 2 Salk. 441.

39 Laugher v Pointer (1826) 5 B. & C. 547.

40 Lane v Cotton (1700–1701) 1 Salk. 17, 18; Hern v Nichols (undated) 1 Salk. 289.

41 Originally as a result of the Statute of Labourers (1349) 23 Edw. III c 1–8. For the later history, see Hay, D., “England, 1562–1875” in Hay, D. and Craven, P. (eds.), Masters, Servants and Magistrates in Britain and the Empire, 1562–1955 (Chapel Hill 2004), 59, 6282Google Scholar.

42 K. Wrightson, Earthly Necessities (New Haven 2000), 33.

43 Bartonshill Coal Co. v McGuire (1858) 3 Macq. 300.

44 Ibid., at p. 306.


45 Hutchinson v York, Newcastle and Berwick Railway (1850) 5 Ex. 343. See also Tolhausen v Davies (1888) 58 L.J.Q.B. 98, 99.

46 Ibid., at p. 350.


47 Hutchinson (1850) 5 Ex. 343, 350.

48 Smith, C., A Treatise on the Law of Master and Servant (London 1852), 151Google Scholar.

49 Shearwood, J., A Sketch of the Law of Tort for the Bar and Solicitors’ Final Examinations (London 1886), 60Google Scholar.

50 Underhill, Sir A., A Summary of the Law of Torts, or, Wrongs Independent of Contract (London 1873), 30Google Scholar.

51 Holland, Sir T., The Elements of Jurisprudence (Oxford 1880), 99Google Scholar.

52 In addition to those specifically mentioned, see Campbell, R., The Law of Negligence (London 1871), 55Google Scholar; Piggott, F., Principles of the Law of Torts (London 1885), 53Google Scholar.

53 Broom, H., A Selection of Legal Maxims, Classified and Illustrated (London 1845), 200Google Scholar, for reference to the maxim qui facit per alium facit per se.

54 For example, Hammond, A., A Practical Treatise on Parties to Actions and Proceedings (London 1817), 82Google Scholar; Piggott, Principles of the Law of Torts, p. 53; Parkyn, E., The Law of Master and Servant (London 1897), 101Google Scholar.

55 For further explicit support for the master's tort theory, see Tolhausen (1888) 58 L.J.Q.B. 98, 99.

56 Barwick v English Joint Stock Bank (1867) L.R. 2 Ex. 259.

57 Ibid., at p. 265.


58 For a seminal account of enterprise liability, see Calabresi, G., “Some Thoughts on Risk Distribution and the Law of Torts” (1961) 70 Y.L.J. 499CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 500.

59 Bush v Steinman (1799) 1 B. & P. 404.

60 Ibid., at p. 409.


61 Ibid., at p. 406.


62 Reedie v London and North Western Railway Co. (1849) 4 Ex. 244, 20 L.J. Ex. 65, 13 Jur. 659. For a discussion of these cases, see Ibbetson, Obligations, pp. 182–83.

63 For an isolated example, see Duncan v Findlater (1839) 6 Cl. & F. 894, 910.

64 Pollock, Sir F., The Law of Torts: A Treatise on the Principles of Obligations Arising from Civil Wrongs in the Common Law (London 1887), 67Google Scholar.

65 Ibid., at p. 68.


66 Pollock, Sir F., Essays in Jurisprudence and Ethics (London 1882)Google Scholar.

67 Ibid., at p. 118.


68 Pollock, Torts, p. 117.

69 Hackett, F., “Why Is a Master Liable for the Torts of His Servant?” (1893) 7 H.L.R. 107CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 111–12.

70 On this moral aspect to Pollock's reasoning, see Duxbury, N., Frederick Pollock and the English Juristic Tradition (Oxford 2004), 257–60CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

71 The phrase used in this context was Pollock's in a note: (1918) 34 L.Q.R. 230, 231.

72 Wigmore, J.H., “Responsibility for Tortious Acts: Its History. II” (1894) 7 H.L.R. 383CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

73 Baty, Vicarious Liability, p. 29.

74 Ibid., at p. 12. Baty suggests that this explains the liability of innkeepers for the loss or damage of a guest's goods.


75 Laski, H.J., “The Basis of Vicarious Liability” (1916) 26 Y.L.J. 105CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

76 Ibid., at p. 121.


77 Ibid., at p. 134.


78 Howe, M. De Wolfe (ed.), Holmes-Laski Letters: The Correspondence of Mr Justice Holmes and Harold J. Laski 1916–1935, vol. 1 (New York 1953)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, Holmes to Laski, 13 January 1917. Holmes wrote these words after Laski promised a copy of his article but before he had received it.

79 Douglas, W.O., “Vicarious Liability and Administration of Risk I” (1929) 38 Y.L.J. 584CrossRefGoogle Scholar; “Vicarious Liability and Administration of Risk II” (1929) 38 Y.L.J. 720.

80 Baty, Vicarious Liability, p. 143.

81 Ibid., at p. 154.


82 Beven, T., Principles of the Law of Negligence (London 1889), 271Google Scholar.

83 Beven, T., Principles of the law of negligence, 3rd ed. (London 1908), vol. 1, 574Google Scholar.

84 Holmes, O.W., The Common Law (Boston 1881)Google Scholar.

85 Ibid., at pp. 16, 90.


86 Clerk, J.F. and Lindsell, W.H.B., The Law of Torts (London 1889), 48Google Scholar.

87 Ibid., at p. 46.


88 Clerk, J.F. and Lindsell, W.H.B., The Law of Torts, 7th ed., by Wyatt-Paine, W. (London 1921), 74Google Scholar.

89 Sir Salmond, J., The Law of Torts: A Treatise on the English Law of Liability for Civil Injuries (London 1907), 78Google Scholar.

90 Sir Salmond, J., Jurisprudence, or, The Theory of the Law (London 1902), 465Google Scholar.

91 Sir Salmond, J., Jurisprudence, or, The Theory of the Law, 7th ed. (London 1924), 432Google Scholar.

92 Winfield, P.H., A Textbook on the Law of Tort (London 1937), 123–24Google Scholar.

93 Ibid., at p. 126.


94 Ibid.


95 For another example that seems to adopt a servant's tort analysis without much explicit discussion, see Kelly v Metropolitan Railway Co. [1895] 1 Q.B. 944, 947–48.

96 Dyer v Munday [1895] 1 Q.B. 742 (CA).

97 Offences Against the Person Act (1861) 24 & 25 Vict. c 100, s. 45.

98 Dyer [1895] 1 Q.B. 742, 746–47, per Lord Esher M.R., 748, per Rigby L.J.

99 For a typically thorough treatment of the question, see the judgment of McCardie J. in Gottliffe v Edelston [1930] 2 K.B. 378.

100 Smith v Moss [1940] 1 K.B. 424.

101 Ibid., at p. 425.


102 Broom v Morgan [1952] 2 All E.R. 1007.

103 Ibid., at p. 1009.


104 Ibid., at p. 1010. The decision was Schubert v August Schubert Wagon Co. (1928) 164 N.E. 43.


105 Broom v Morgan [1953] 1 Q.B. 597.

106 Ibid., at p. 602.


107 Ibid., at p. 612.


108 Ibid., at p. 608.


109 Ibid., at p. 607.


110 Law Reform (Husband and Wife) Act 1962, s. 1.

111 Twine v Bean's Express Ltd. [1946] 1 All E.R. 202.

112 There is a useful case-note on the decision: Newark, F.H., “Twine v. Bean's Express, Ltd.” (1954) 17 M.L.R. 102CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

113 Twine [1946] 1 All E.R. 202, 204.

114 Twine v Bean's Express Ltd. (1946) 62 T.L.R. 458.

115 It is commonly, but erroneously, attributed to Priestley v Fowler (1837) 3 M. & W. 1. See Simpson, A.W. B., Leading Cases in the Common Law (Oxford 1995), 100–34Google Scholar. Fears about the scope of vicarious liability, if the claim were to succeed, may have been an important factor in the outcome: Stein, M., “Priestley v. Fowler (1837) and the Emerging Tort of Negligence” (2003) 44 B.C.L.Rev. 689Google Scholar, at 700.

116 Hutchinson (1850) 5 Ex. 343; Bartonshill Coal Company (1858) 3 Macq 282.

117 On the Employers’ Liability Act 1880, see Bartrip, P.W.J. and Burman, S.B., The Wounded Soldiers of Industry (Oxford 1983), 126–57Google Scholar; Deakin, S., “Tort Law and Workmen's Compensation Legislation: Complementary or Competing Models?” in Arvind, T.T. and Steele, J. (eds.), Tort Law and the Legislature (Oxford 2013), 253–67Google Scholar.

118 For a discussion of the rule and exceptions, see Mitchell, P., A History of Tort Law 1900–1950 (Cambridge 2015), 209–40Google Scholar.

119 Wilson & Clyde Coal Company Ltd. v English [1938] A.C. 57, 79.

120 Robson, W.A., “Common Employment Reflections on the Doctrine in the Light of Wilson and Clyde Coal Company Ltd. v. English” (1937) 1 M.L.R. 224CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 225.

121 Wilson & Clyde Coal Company Ltd. [1938] A.C. 57, 74.

122 Lister [1939] A.C. 215.

123 Ibid., at p. 235.


124 Ibid., at p. 246.


125 Law Reform (Personal Injuries) Act 1948, s. 1.

126 Law Reform (Contributory Negligence) Act 1945.

127 Jones v Staveley Iron and Chemical Co. Ltd. [1955] 1 Q.B. 474.

128 Ibid., at p. 480.


129 Ibid., at p. 484.


130 Ibid., at p. 482.


131 Staveley Iron and Chemical Co. Ltd. v Jones [1956] 1 A.C. 627.

132 Ibid., at p. 643.


133 Ibid., at p. 644.


134 Ibid.


135 Ibid., at p. 671.


136 Ibid., at pp. 646–47.


137 Ibid., at p. 646.


138 Williams, G., “Vicarious Liability: Tort of the Master or of the Servant?” (1956) 72 L.Q.R. 522Google Scholar, at 522.

139 Lewis, T.E., Winfield on Tort, 6th ed. (London 1954)Google Scholar.

140 [1955] C.L.J. 113–14.

141 Lewis, Winfield, p. 173.

142 Admittedly, the language of master and servant was slow to die out. It continued to be used by successive editors of Winfield's treatise.

143 And not just in England and Wales; see Darling Island Stevedoring and Lighterage Co. Ltd. v Long (1957) 97 C.L.R. 36, 56–57, per Fullagar J.

144 Kahn-Freund, O., “Servants and Independent Contractors” (1951) 14 M.L.R. 504Google Scholar, at 505–06.

145 Two case notes in the Cambridge Law Journal discuss this point at some length: Hamson, C.J., “Tort –Master's Vicarious Liability to Spouse of Servant” [1954] C.L.J. 45CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Wedderburn, K.W., “Negligence – Standard of Care – Vicarious Lability” [1955] C.L.J. 151CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

146 Broom [1953] 1 Q.B. 597.

147 Ibid., at p. 609.


148 Jones [1955] 1 Q.B. 474.

149 Ibid., at p. 480.


150 Wilson & Clyde Coal Company Ltd. [1938] A.C. 57.

151 Cassidy v Ministry of Health [1951] 2 Q.B. 343, 359–60; Roe v Ministry of Health [1954] 2 Q.B. 66, 82. In part, this may be motivated by a desire to limit the liability of doctors and, more generally, judicial reluctance to find that doctors have failed to meet the requisite standard of care, see Swain, W., “The Development of Medical Liability in England and Wales” in Hondius, E. (ed.), The Development of Medical Liability (Cambridge 2010), 27, 4244Google Scholar.

152 Broom [1953] 1 Q.B. 597, 609.

153 Non-delegable duties are sometimes conflated with vicarious liability. For a discussion of that issue, see Stevens, R., “Non-delegable Duties and Vicarious Liability” in Neyers, J. et al. (eds.), Emergent Issues in Tort Law (Oxford 2007), 331–68Google Scholar; Morgan, J., “Liability for Independent Contractors in Contract and Tort: Duties to Ensure that Care is Taken” [2015] C.L.J. 109CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 120.

154 Traditionally whilst an employer could not be vicariously liable for an independent contractor, they could be liable by way of a non-delegable duty: Woodland [2014] A.C. 537, 573–74. In addition to the literature ibid., see Williams, G., “Liability for Independent Contractors” [1956] C.L.J. 180CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

155 Staveley Iron and Chemical Co. Ltd. [1956] 1 A.C. 627, 639.

156 Denning, Lord, The Discipline of Law (London 1979), 241–42Google Scholar.

157 For a cogent criticism of this approach, see Morgan, “Independent Contractors”, p. 128.

158 Atiyah, P.S., Vicarious Liability in the Law of Torts (London 1967), 7Google Scholar.

159 Swain, W., The Law of Contract 1670–1870 (Cambridge 2015), chs. 8, 9CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

160 Imperial Chemical Industries Ltd. v Shatwell [1965] A.C. 656.

161 Ibid., at p. 685.


162 Launchbury v Morgans [1973] A.C. 127.

163 Ibid., at p. 140, per Viscount Dilhorne, 140, per Lord Pearson.


164 Ibid., at p. 140.


165 For a rather sanguine endorsement of the idea, see Woodland [2014] A.C. 537, 590, per Baroness Hale.

166 For a discussion, see Swain, “Vicarious Liability”, pp. 108–10. Enterprise liability has been heavily criticised by Gray, Vicarious Liability, pp. 123–48, but it has found favour in a number of contexts in the modern law; see Brodie, Enterprise Liability. For a striking example in the context of vicarious liability, see Cox [2016] A.C. 660.

167 Stevens, Torts, pp. 257–74.

168 For a recent obiter endorsement of the master's tort theory, see Ancient Order of Foresters in Victoria Friendly Society Ltd. v Lifeplan Australia Friendly Society Ltd. [2018] HCA 43, at [5].

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