Doctrine Of Common Employment

Doctrine Of Common Employment
Doctrine Of Common Employment
Quick Summary of Doctrine Of Common Employment

The case of Priestly v. Fowler (1837) established that an employer could not be vicariously liable to his own employees for the torts of other employees. This principle became known as the doctrine of common employment and survived until it was abolished by the Law Reform Personal Injuries Act (1948).

What is the dictionary definition of Doctrine Of Common Employment?
Dictionary Definition of Doctrine Of Common Employment

The doctrine of common employment, also known as the fellow servant rule, is a legal principle that historically shielded employers from liability for injuries caused by the negligence of a fellow employee. Under this doctrine, if an employee was injured due to the negligence of a co-worker, the employer could not be held liable unless the employer was also directly negligent. This doctrine was based on the idea that employees assume the risks inherent in their work environment, including the actions of their fellow workers. However, with the development of modern workplace safety standards and changes in legal liability principles, many jurisdictions have either abolished or significantly modified the doctrine of common employment.

Full Definition Of Doctrine Of Common Employment

The Doctrine of Common Employment, also known as the “fellow servant rule,” is a legal principle that originated in the 19th century during the Industrial Revolution. It was established as a defence for employers against liability for injuries sustained by employees due to the actions of their co-workers. This doctrine significantly impacted employer-employee relationships and the development of workplace safety laws. However, its application has evolved and, in many jurisdictions, has been largely abolished or replaced by more modern legal frameworks.

Historical Context

The Industrial Revolution brought about significant changes in the workplace, leading to increased employment in factories and other industrial settings. This period saw a rise in workplace accidents, prompting the need for a legal framework to address employer liability. The Doctrine of Common Employment was first articulated in the landmark English case Priestley v. Fowler (1837). In this case, the court held that an employer was not liable for injuries sustained by an employee if the injury was caused by the negligence of a fellow employee. The rationale was that when an employee accepts a job, they also accept the risks associated with the negligence of their colleagues.

Key Principles of the Doctrine

  1. Assumption of Risk: The doctrine operates on the principle that employees assume the risks inherent in their employment, including the risk of negligence by co-workers. This assumption is considered part of the employment contract.
  2. Fellow Servant Rule: This rule posits that an employer is not liable for injuries to an employee caused by the actions or negligence of a fellow employee. The premise is that employees are in the best position to supervise and manage each other’s conduct.
  3. Vicarious Liability Limitation: While employers are generally vicariously liable for the actions of their employees, the Doctrine of Common Employment serves as a limitation to this liability, protecting employers from being held responsible for injuries resulting from co-worker negligence.

Judicial Application and Criticism

The application of the Doctrine of Common Employment in courts has varied, and it has been subject to substantial criticism. Critics argue that it unfairly places the burden of workplace injuries on employees, who often lack the power to control their working conditions or the actions of their colleagues. Moreover, the doctrine was seen as a legal artefact that favoured employers during a time when workers had limited rights and protections.

Abolition and Legislative Reforms

Over time, the harshness of the Doctrine of Common Employment led to legislative reforms aimed at better-protecting workers. In the United Kingdom, the doctrine was effectively abolished by the Employers’ Liability (Compulsory Insurance) Act 1969 and the Employers’ Liability (Defective Equipment) Act 1969. These acts required employers to have insurance to cover injuries to their employees and made them liable for injuries caused by defective equipment provided by the employer.

In the United States, the doctrine was gradually abolished through a combination of judicial decisions and legislative acts. Many states enacted workers’ compensation laws, which created a no-fault system for compensating workers for job-related injuries. This system provided a more balanced approach, ensuring that injured workers received compensation without the need to prove employer negligence or overcome defences like the Doctrine of Common Employment.

Comparative Analysis

United Kingdom

In the UK, the movement towards abolishing the Doctrine of Common Employment was driven by the recognition of the need for fairer treatment of workers. The development of statutory protections and compulsory insurance schemes marked a significant shift in the legal landscape. The introduction of Health and Safety regulations further enhanced worker protections, ensuring safer working environments and holding employers accountable for workplace safety.

United States

The abolition of the doctrine in the United States followed a similar path, with the establishment of workers’ compensation schemes in the early 20th century. These schemes provided a more efficient and just mechanism for addressing workplace injuries. Each state developed its own workers’ compensation laws, but the common thread was the elimination of defences like the Doctrine of Common Employment in favour of a no-fault compensation system.

Current Legal Framework

Today, the Doctrine of Common Employment is largely a historical footnote, having been replaced by more modern legal principles and frameworks designed to protect workers and ensure fair compensation for workplace injuries. The contemporary approach focuses on employer liability, health and safety regulations, and workers’ compensation schemes.

  1. Employer Liability: Modern legal frameworks hold employers liable for ensuring a safe working environment. Employers must implement adequate safety measures, provide proper training, and maintain equipment to prevent workplace accidents.
  2. Health and Safety Regulations: Regulatory bodies such as the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) in the UK establish guidelines and standards for workplace safety. Employers are required to comply with these regulations, and failure to do so can result in significant penalties.
  3. Workers’ Compensation: Workers’ compensation schemes provide a no-fault system for compensating employees who suffer workplace injuries. These schemes ensure that workers receive timely compensation without the need to litigate.

Case Law Developments

While the Doctrine of Common Employment has been abolished, its historical application influenced the development of case law and legal principles surrounding employer liability and workplace safety. Modern case law continues to evolve, addressing new challenges and ensuring that workers’ rights are protected.

  1. Vicarious Liability: Courts have expanded the scope of vicarious liability, holding employers accountable for the actions of their employees even outside the strict scope of employment, provided there is a sufficient connection to the employment.
  2. Negligence and Duty of Care: Employers are expected to exercise a high standard of care towards their employees. Failure to meet this standard can result in liability for negligence. Recent cases have clarified the extent of this duty and the circumstances under which employers can be held liable.
  3. Occupational Health: Legal developments have increasingly recognised the importance of mental health and well-being in the workplace. Employers are now expected to take proactive steps to prevent work-related stress and mental health issues.

The Future of Workplace Safety and Liability

The legal landscape surrounding workplace safety and employer liability continues to evolve. Emerging issues such as remote work, the gig economy, and technological advancements present new challenges and opportunities for further legal developments.

  1. Remote Work: The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the shift towards remote work. Legal frameworks will need to adapt to address the unique challenges of ensuring workplace safety and employer liability in a remote working environment.
  2. Gig Economy: The rise of the gig economy presents challenges in defining the employment relationship and determining liability for workplace injuries. Courts and legislators will need to address these issues to ensure fair treatment and protection for gig workers.
  3. Technology and Automation: Technological advancements and automation have transformed the workplace. Legal frameworks must keep pace with these changes, addressing issues such as workplace safety, employer liability, and the impact of automation on workers’ rights.


The Doctrine of Common Employment played a significant role in shaping the legal landscape of employer liability and workplace safety during the 19th and early 20th centuries. While it provided a defence for employers against liability for injuries caused by co-workers, it was ultimately seen as unfair to employees and was abolished in favour of more balanced and protective legal frameworks. Today, modern legal principles and regulatory frameworks ensure that employers are held accountable for workplace safety and that employees receive fair compensation for injuries. As the nature of work continues to evolve, the legal landscape will need to adapt to address new challenges and ensure the protection of workers’ rights.


  1. Priestley v. Fowler (1837), the foundational case establishing the doctrine of common employment.
  2. Employers’ Liability (Compulsory Insurance) Act 1969: UK legislation mandating employer insurance for worker injuries.
  3. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is a UK regulatory body overseeing workplace safety.
  4. Workers’ Compensation Laws: Various state laws in the US provide no-fault compensation systems for workplace injuries.

By understanding the historical context, key principles, judicial application, and subsequent abolition of the Doctrine of Common Employment, we gain insight into the evolution of employer liability and worker protection laws. This overview highlights the importance of continuous legal adaptation to ensure fair treatment and safety for all workers in an ever-changing work environment.

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This site contains general legal information but does not constitute professional legal advice for your particular situation. Persuing this glossary does not create an attorney-client or legal adviser relationship. If you have specific questions, please consult a qualified attorney licensed in your jurisdiction.

This glossary post was last updated: 9th June 2024.

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