Woodland v Essex County Council — is this the end of school swimming lessons?

On 23 October 2013, the Supreme Court handed down its judgment in the long-running case of Woodland v Essex County Council and in the process rewrote the common law. This will no doubt get lawyers very excited, but let’s look at what it means for schools that delegate certain functions to contractors.

The background to this very sad case is that Ms Woodland suffered a serious brain injury during a school swimming lesson at a local swimming pool during school hours. She was being taught by a swimming teacher that was not employed directly by the school nor the local authority, but under a contract with the local authority. She alleged that her injuries were caused by the swimming teacher’s negligence.

The general rule is that only the person who is negligent can be sued, but if they are directly employed then the employer can be vicariously liable for the employee’s negligence. But where they are an independent contractor, as was the case here, the body that engaged the contractor is not liable at common law for the contractor’s negligence.

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