In Wm Morrison Supermarkets plc v Various Claimants [2020] UKSC 12, the Supreme Court has overturned judgments of the High Court and Court of Appeal and decided that a supermarket was not vicariously liable for unauthorised breaches of the Data Protection Act 1998 committed by an employee.

Wm Morrison Supermarkets plc v Various Claimants – the facts

In 2013, Mr Skelton, who was then employed by Wm Morrison Supermarkets plc (Morrisons) as an internal IT auditor, was provided with a verbal warning for minor misconduct. Subsequently, he developed an irrational grudge against his employer. After being asked by Morrisons to provide payroll data for the entire workforce to external auditors, Mr Skelton copied the data onto a USB stick. He took the USB stick home and posted the data on the internet, using another employee’s details in an attempt to conceal his actions. He also sent this data to three national newspapers, purporting to be a concerned member of the public.

The newspapers did not publish the data, but one newspaper alerted Morrisons, who immediately took steps to remove the data from the internet, contact the police and begin an internal investigation. Morrisons spent £2.26 million dealing with the aftermath of the disclosure, a large proportion of which was spent on security measures for its employees. Mr Skelton was arrested and ultimately convicted of criminal offences under the Computer Misuse Act 1990 and section 55 of the DPA 1998, which was in force at the time.

The claimants in this case were 9,263 of Morrisons’ employees or former employees. They claimed damages from Morrisons in the High Court for misuse of private information and breach of confidence, and for breach of its statutory duty under section 4(4) of the DPA 1998. The claimants alleged that Morrisons was either primarily liable under those heads of claim or vicariously liable for Mr Skelton’s wrongful conduct.

Data Protection Act 1998

This case was decided under the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA 1998) which was applicable at the time. The DPA 1998 implemented the Data Protection Directive (95/46/EEC) and imposed broad obligations on those who collect personal data (data controllers), as well as conferring broad rights on individuals about whom data is collected (data subjects). Section 4(4) of the DPA 1998 provided that a data controller must comply with eight data protection principles in relation to all personal data with respect to which they are a controller.

Under section 13(1), any breach of the DPA 1998 which caused damage entitled the victim to compensation for that damage. Section 13(2) provided as follows:

“An individual who suffers distress by reason of any contravention by a data controller of any of the requirements of this Act is entitled to compensation from the data controller for that distress if the individual also suffers damage by reason of the contravention.”

Under section 13(3), it was a defence to any proceedings under section 13 for a person, or in this case Morrisons, to prove that they had taken such care as was reasonably required in all the circumstances to comply with the relevant requirement.

Vicarious liability

It was also crucial to consider whether Morrisons could be vicariously liable for their employee’s action in this instance. Employers will be liable for torts committed by an employee under the doctrine of vicarious liability where there is a sufficient connection between the employment and the wrongdoing. There is a two-stage test:

  • Is there a relationship between the primary wrongdoer and the person alleged to be liable which is capable of giving rise to vicarious liability?
  • Is the connection between the employment and the wrongful act or omission so close that it would be just and reasonable to impose liability?

In Lister v Hesley Hall Ltd [2001] UKHL 22, the House of Lords characterised the second stage as a “sufficient connection” test. The question was whether the torts were “so closely connected with [the] employment that it would be fair and just to hold the employers vicariously liable”.

In Mohamud v Wm Morrison Supermarkets plc [2016] UKSC 11 (Mohamud), the Supreme Court held that the supermarket was vicariously liable for an employee’s unprovoked violent assault on a customer. It found that there was a sufficiently close connection between the assault and the employee’s job of attending to customers, such that the employer should be held vicariously liable

Wm Morrison Supermarkets plc – Decision

Morrisons was not vicariously liable for Mr Skelton’s actions. It found that the Court of Appeal had misunderstood the principles governing vicarious liability in the following respects:

  • The disclosure of the data on the internet did not form part of Mr Skelton’s functions or field of activities. This was not an act which he was authorised to do.
  • Although there was a close temporal link and an unbroken chain of causation linking the provision of the data to Mr Skelton for the purpose of transmitting it to the auditors and his disclosing it on the internet, a temporal or causal connection did not in itself satisfy the close connection test.
  • The reason why Mr Skelton acted wrongfully was not irrelevant. Whether he was acting on his employer’s business or for purely personal reasons was highly material.

The mere fact that Mr Skelton’s employment gave him the opportunity to commit the wrongful act was not sufficient to warrant the imposition of vicarious liability. It was clear that Mr Skelton was not engaged in furthering his employer’s business when he committed the wrongdoing. On the contrary, he was pursuing a personal vendetta. His wrongful conduct was not so closely connected with acts which he was authorised to do that it could fairly and properly be regarded as done by him while acting in the ordinary course of his employment.

Comment

This decision will provide welcome confirmation for employers that they will not always be liable for data breaches committed by rogue employees. It similarly provides helpful clarification for practitioners on the way in which the judgment in Mohamud should be applied in future cases concerning vicarious liability.

The facts in this case were extreme. It seems that Morrisons were wholly unaware of the grudge held by Mr Skelton. Mr Skelton also took extraordinary actions to cover up what he had done and even to frame another employee.

Unanswered questions

Had Morrisons been found vicariously liable for Mr Skelton’s actions, the employees who made the claims would have had to prove that they suffered ‘distress, anxiety, upset and damage’ by the mishandling of their personal information. A supreme court ruling on the issue would have provided a helpful benchmark to those wanting to understand more about how our courts quantify compensation for data breaches.

Moving forward

Employers should take away from the judgment that although this case was decided under the previous data protection regime, the DPA 1998 and the GDPR are based on broadly similar principles. Therefore the GDPR and Data Protection Act 2018 (DPA 2018) will not be a barrier to vicarious liability actions in data privacy proceedings commenced under the current regime.

Additionally, the GDPR makes compliance far more onerous for controllers and risks exposure to the huge revenue-based fines and data subject compensation claims for breaches of the GDPR and DPA 2018. This includes failing to safeguard data to statutory standards and neglect to have governance in place to curb the malicious acts of rogue employees.

The success of Morrisons in bringing to an end the threat under this case of being subject to a group action for compensation follows Google LLC being granted freedom to appeal against the Court of Appeal’s order in Lloyd v Google LLC [2019] EWCA Civ 1599 and is another significant development in the progress of representative class actions in the UK legal system.

If you have any questions on data protection law or on any of the issues raised in this article please get in touch with one of our data protection lawyers.