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  • Writer's pictureRobert Spicer

Health and Safety: alcohol and drugs

Significant cases on alcohol and drug abuse and health and safety at work include the following:

Armed forces: drunkenness: employer’s duty of care

Jobson v Ministry of Defence (2000) The Times, June 28, Court of Appeal

J was a soldier who travelled with a group of comrades for a night out during arduous training. They travelled in an army lorry. Most of the group were intoxicated during the return journey. J tried to climb onto the canvas roof of the lorry. He fell and was injured. He claimed compensation in negligence from his employer, the Ministry of Defence. At first instance his claim was dismissed. The judge stated the following:

  • It was reasonably foreseeable that some of the soldiers might be drunk.

  • The employer had been in breach of its duty to supervise the behaviour of the group.

  • The employer was not liable because J’s actions in trying to climb onto the roof of the lorry had not been foreseeable.

J’s appeal to the Court of Appeal succeeded. The Court of Appeal ruled that although an adult could not generally rely on his own drunkenness as giving rise to a duty on others to exercise special care, there was no such invariable rule.

Where an obligation of care existed in respect of a person who was likely to be drunk, that liability could not be avoided because the person was drunk. J was largely the author of his own misfortune. His contributory negligence amounted to 75 per cent.

Armed forces: duty of care: responsibility

Barrett v Ministry of Defence (1995) Court of Appeal

B was a naval airman stationed in Norway. One day in 1988 he consumed a large amount of duty-free alcohol and became unconscious. His widow claimed compensation in negligence from the Ministry of Defence on the basis that B’s death had been caused by its negligence. In the High Court she was awarded £200,000 compensation. The reasons for this award were that boredom at the base had been foreseeable and it was also foreseeable that B would drink heavily. After he had become unconscious the MOD had assumed responsibility for him.

On appeal by the MOD to the Court of Appeal, the appeal was allowed in part. The Court made the following points:

  • The law allowed responsible adults to assume responsibility for their own actions in relation to the consumption of alcohol.

  • After B became unconscious, the employer was responsible for him.

  • The MOD admitted that it had not properly carried out its responsibilities and was liable to the extent of one-third. Compensation was reduced to £71,400.

Employees drunk at training seminar

Whitbread Beer Company v Williams (1995) Employment Appeal Tribunal

Three employees of Whitbread attended a training seminar organised by the company with the aim of improving the workforce’s behavioural skills. During the course of the seminar, the three became drunk, abusive and violent. They were dismissed and complained of unfair dismissal. The industrial tribunal (as it then was) found in their favour on the basis that the employer’s action in dismissing them had been over the top. Whitbread appealed to the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT).

The appeal succeeded. The EAT ruled that the tribunal’s decision had been perverse. The conduct of the three workers had been a fundamental breach of their contract of employment. The company had acted fairly and reasonably.

Drug test: dismissal for misconduct

Sutherland v Sonat Offshore (UK) Inc (1993) Employment Appeal Tribunal

S, a control-room operator on an offshore oil-drilling rig, had agreed to be subjected to drug tests. His contract of employment stated that the possession or use of drugs at work would result in dismissal. He took a drugs test which indicated the presence of cannabis in his urine. He was dismissed and complained of unfair dismissal. The industrial tribunal found that the employer had acted entirely reasonably in dismissing him. This decision was upheld by the Employment Appeal Tribunal.

Drug test: safety issues: dismissal

O’Flynn v Airlinks The Airport Coach Co Ltd (2002) Employment Appeal Tribunal

A Ltd operated a random workforce drugs and alcohol screening programme. It told employees that a positive result of drugs testing would be regarded as an a act of gross misconduct resulting in dismissal. O, an employee of A Ltd, was about to undergo a urine test when she admitted drug taking. She was dismissed. Her complaint of unfair dismissal was rejected by the employment tribunal. Her appeal to the Employment Appeal Tribunal was dismissed. The EAT made the following points:

  • O had been aware of her employer’s policy and its consequences. She had not protested against its introduction or implementation.

  • Her duties included driving vehicles and serving hot meals. There were safety issues to consider and it could not be said that the employment tribunal had been wrong to find that her dismissal was fair.

A Ltd’s policy did not impinge upon an employee’s personal life except to the extent that the employee was required to give a urine sample as part of the random screening process.

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