The Supreme Court has today (02.03.16) upheld the Court of Appeal’s decision to allow a Swansea Prison employee to claim damages against the Ministry of Justice after an inmate dropped a 25kg bag of rice on her, causing serious injury.

The landmark case, brought by the Prison Officers Association (POA) and Thompsons Solicitors, will change the legal definition of ‘employee’ and the law around vicarious liability. Now, prisoners working in prisons alongside employees of the Ministry of Justice will be classed as an ‘employee’.

In September 2007, prison catering manager Susan Cox was seriously injured at Swansea prison as she supervised prisoners carrying food from a delivery van to the prison kitchen. As Susan was clearing a spillage caused by one prisoner, another failed to listen to her instructions to stop –subsequently lost his balance and dropped the heavy bag on her back.

The injury to Ms Cox’s spine was so severe that she was unable to return to her job in the prison. Ms Cox sought legal advice from the POA, her union, who instructed Thompsons Solicitors to look into the case and seek compensation on her behalf.

The first court judgment in February 2013 ruled that prisoners performing job-like tasks in prisons could not be classed as employees, and therefore the MoJ did not need to pay compensation to Ms Cox. However, in a challenge brought by Thompsons and backed by the POA, the Court of Appeal unanimously overturned this judgment, saying that the MoJ was vicariously liable for the prisoner’s actions.

The MoJ appealed from the Court of Appeal to the Supreme Court, but has today lost in a unanimous judgment from the five Supreme Court judges. They held that the prisoner’s role at the time of the accident was more akin to an employee than a prisoner, and as a result the MoJ should pay compensation for the inmate’s negligence and the injuries caused.

Retired POA member Susan Cox said: “I was in agony after the injury, and it forced me to medically retire from a job I loved. I am still suffering from long term, chronic pain that I am still medicated for.

“This has been a long, challenging process but I am glad we persevered. I would like to thank the POA and Thompsons for their unyielding support and efforts to ensure we got the right decision in the end.”

General Secretary of the POA Steve Gillan said: “This is a significant day for prison workers across the UK – they are now legally protected when working alongside prisoners. We are delighted that this loophole has been removed from the law, and that the Ministry of Justice can no longer shirk responsibility for the injuries that happen in their prisons.”

Catherine Cladingbowl of Thompsons Solicitors said: “It was clear to us that the Ministry of Justice should be held responsible for the prisoner’s negligence, and the Supreme Court agrees. Prison employees’ safety when working alongside prisoners will now have to be taken seriously.”