Can business owners be legally liable for the negligence of subcontractors? In the case of a dental practice proprietor who engaged self-employed dentists, the High Court answered that question with a decisive 'yes'.
The case concerned a woman who underwent dental treatment at the practice over a number of years. She claimed that she was negligently treated by four dentists, three of whom were self-employed subcontractors. She claimed compensation from the practice owner although he had not at any point treated her himself. The issue of whether he could be held personally liable for the alleged failings of the subcontractors was considered as a preliminary issue.
Ruling on the matter, the Court found that the practice owner owed the woman a duty of care that could not be delegated to others. His relationship with the subcontractors was also sufficiently akin to employment to render him indirectly – or vicariously – liable for any negligence on their part.
Although he had chosen to deliver his services via subcontractors, he bore ultimate responsibility for patient care under the terms of his NHS contract. The woman was a patient of the practice, not just of each dentist who treated her. She had placed herself in the care of the practice in circumstances where she was vulnerable to injury and the practice owner was under a duty to protect her from harm.
The practice held her dental records, arranged her appointments and received payment for her treatment. It provided the premises, equipment and support staff required by the subcontractors. Any goodwill associated with her treatment was retained by the practice and the subcontractors were subject to post-termination restrictions designed to protect the practice's client base.
The subcontractors were free to make their own clinical decisions and to provide treatment as they saw fit. They also largely determined their own working hours. However, they worked as an integral part of the practice and its owner had sufficient control over them to render their relationship akin to employment. The imposition of vicarious responsibility on the practice owner was fair, just and reasonable. The Court's ruling opened the way for the woman to proceed with her claim.