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Wilsons & Clyde Coal Co. Ltd v English [1937] 3 All ER 628


Duties of employers at common law; liability of employer for acts of agent. Master - Servant Duty of Care



Act, Regulation or Reference:

Coal Mines Act 1911

Date: 1937


Mr English, a miner, was injured at work when he was crushed by haulage plant. He claimed damages from his employer, the mine owner. The employer argued that, at the time of the accident, responsibility for the safety of the mine had been delegated to his agent.
In an action by a miner against his employers for damages for personal injury alleged to be due to the negligence of the employers in that they had failed to provide a reasonably safe system of working the colliery, questions were raised (1) whether the employers were liable at common law for a defective system of working negligently provided or permitted to be carried on by a servant to whom the duty of regulating the system of working had been delegated by the employers, the employers' board of directors being unaware of the defect, and (2) if they were liable, whether the employers were relieved of their liability in view of the prohibition contained in the Coal Mines Act 1911, s2(4), against the owner of a mine taking any part in the technical management of the mine unless he is qualified to be a manager.

The Decision

It was held by the House of Lords that (1) the employers were not absolved from their duty to take due care in the provision of a reasonably safe system of working by the appointment of a competent person to perform that duty. Although the employers might, and in some events were bound to, appoint someone as their agent in the discharge of their duty, the employers remained responsible. (2) the doctrine of common employment does not apply where it is proved that a defective system of working has been provided. To provide a proper system of working is a paramount duty, and, if it is delegated by a master to another, the master still remains liable.

Lord Wright stated that the whole course of authority consistently recognises a duty which rests on the employer, and which is personal to the employer, to take reasonable care for the safety of his workmen, whether the employer be an individual, a firm, or a company, and whether or not the employer takes any share in the conduct of the operations. The obligation is threefold, "the provision of a competent staff of men, adequate material, and a proper system and effective supervision".

The employer must:
• Provide a safe place of work with safe means of access and egress
• Provide and maintain safe appliances, equipment and plant for doing the work
• Provide and maintain a safe system for doing the work
• Provide competent co-employees to carry out the work


Where an agent is performing the employer’s duty of providing a safe system of work, he is performing the duty of the employer. The employer remains vicariously responsible for the agent’s negligence