Although employers have a duty of care towards their employees, the High Court has held in Piepenbrock v The London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) that the university did not breach its duty of care nor was the employee’s depressive illness reasonably foreseeable following an unsubstantiated claim of improper sexual behaviour.

Basic facts

Mr Piepenbrock, a deputy academic dean at the LSE, went on a professional trip to the States in November 2012. He was accompanied by Ms D, his graduate teaching assistant, who made sexual advances towards him which he rejected.

However, rather than seek advice from the university’s HR department about the best way to handle the situation, he had several long conversations with her explaining why her behaviour was inappropriate. One of these conversations took place in the early hours of the morning in her hotel room in Seattle, along with another male colleague.  Following this conversation Ms D became extremely distressed and contacted her mother who, in turn, contacted hotel security and told them that Mr Piepenbrock and his colleague were preventing her daughter from leaving her room. Two security guards then arrived and escorted Ms D out of the hotel and into a taxi.

Ms D initially made an informal complaint that Mr Piepenbrock had made unwanted sexual advances towards her during the trip. She also started circulating these allegations to other members of the faculty. He was not told that she had then lodged a formal complaint on 11 December until the following day. By midnight on 12 December, he became too ill to teach and a week later was diagnosed by his GP as having an acute stress reaction. He was signed off work for depression on 31 January 2013 and in the event did not return to work. The LSE investigated Ms D’s allegations, but found them not proven.

Mr Piepenbrock’s claim

Mr Piepenbrock claimed in the High Court that the LSE was vicariously liable for the actions of Ms D which he said were malicious and amounted to harassment under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 (PHA). He also claimed that the LSE was in breach of contract because it failed to follow its own harassment policy, which was incorporated into his contract, and in breach of its duty to take reasonable care of him in terms of the way it handled Ms D's complaint. As a result of its negligence, he had suffered a severe depressive episode, which had made him vulnerable to further episodes.

High Court decision

The High Court dismissed his claims. The trigger for Ms D's complaint was the events in Seattle and was legitimate. Although she should not have disseminated it in the way she did, she was putting others on notice of his conduct if only to prevent a reoccurrence. Given these facts, her conduct did not amount to harassment within the meaning of the PHA.

In addition, although the LSE was in breach of its duty of care to Mr Piepenbrock by not telling him about Ms D’s informal complaint for over a week and for not telling her to keep the matter confidential, it was not reasonably foreseeable that he would suffer the reaction that he did. The nature of the breaches was not sufficient to create a foreseeable risk of psychiatric injury.


Although the case does not establish any new point of law, the court was critical of the way the employer handled the complaint of harassment. Notwithstanding the harassment procedure in place the court found “that those who were purporting to deal with the matter were passing the buck, from one to the other disclaiming any responsibility for decisive action.”