Mary Mulhall of Hugh James and John-Paul Swoboda discuss the recent case of TDX v Raven Mount Services Company Ltd, where they acted for the Claimant, and provide some practice points in cases where you are suing a parent company.
At the heart of this case was one question, did the parent company (the Defendant) owe the deceased a duty of care in respect of his safety whilst at work? If they did then liability followed, it having been admitted that asbestos exposure was negligent and causative of the deceased’s mesothelioma. The case settled on favourable terms to the Claimant at about 5pm on the day before trial.
TDX, the Claimant, was the deceased’s daughter. The deceased also had an adult son, TSX, who suffered from profound disability. Prior to mesothelioma TSX relied entirely on his father, the deceased, for his many care needs. Because TSX lacked capacity the proceedings were anonymised.
The case arose from 18 months of exposure to asbestos in the construction industry during 1962/63 to 1963/64. The deceased was a labourer working next to carpenters sawing AIB and laggers. His employer, according to HMRC records, was a company known as Holliday and Greenwood (H&G) but no insurance could be traced. However, the deceased recalled working for Higgs and Hill (H&H), the predecessor in title to the Defendant, who were the parent company to H&G and who remain an active company.
We argued that parent company liability arose because H&H’s parent/ subsidiary relationship with H&G was at the extreme end where the de jure difference of legal personality was, in practice,irrelevant. We argued H&G was controlled legally, administratively, and in practice by H&H; that key aspects of the business (e.g. costings, plant, stores, wages, consideration of accidents) where carried on by H&H as though H&G and H&H were a single commercial undertaking. Whilst H&G in theory had their own staff we argued the evidence suggested employees did not distinguish between H&H and H&G (with the deceased indicating he thought he worked for H&H). We said in light of the above H&H owed a duty to the deceased in respect of his work and his safety whilst at work.
Our experience litigating this case has highlighted some practice points which we hope may be useful for practitioners considering bringing an action against a parent company.
Firstly, if the facts are right, one should be prepared to allege parent company responsibility/liability in any context. To put it another way although Chandler v Cape  EWCA Civ 525 was concerned with parent company liability in an asbestos factory, and subsequent cases, such as Okpabi v Shell  UKSC 3 (oil spills from pipes in the Niger delta)Lungowe v Vedanta  UKSC 20 (Zambian copper mine discharge causing PI and property damage), are mass torts occurring overseas, there is no reason in principle why parent company liability may not arise in the construction industry (as alleged in this case) or in any other industry. Parent company liability provides an alternative route to establishing liability which may prove invaluable where the employer is dissolved and no insurer can be traced.
Secondly, parent company liability in the terms cast by Okpabi, Vedanta and Chandler is not the only route to establish parent company liability. The courts have, in recent years also described a concept known as “dual vicarious liability”. The Supreme Court in Various Claimants v Catholic Child Welfare Society  UKSC 56) said this doctrine may apply where the employee “is so much part of the work, business or organisation of both employers that it is just to make both employers answer for his negligence.” A further doctrine of some assistance may be transferred employment/ borrowed employees. As described in Bowstead and Reynolds on Agency “An employee, X, may be in the general employment of A, but, as the result of arrangements made between A and B, X may be acting as the employee of B, so as to make B, and not A, responsible for X’s tort at the relevant time. The test is whether X is transferred, or only the use and benefit of X’s work, and this depends upon the extent to which A places X under the control and at the disposition of B.” Finally, of course one must not lose sight of the fact that many of the regulations relevant to asbestos litigation do not require a pre-existing relationship of employment but rather the relevant test is control or whether the sued person was an occupier (cf. McDonald v National Grid Electricity  UKSC 53). Which legal doctrine is best suited ought to be determined by the evidence.
Thirdly, the mantra of evidence, evidence, evidence is key if a parent liability case is to be won. Whether there is sufficient intervention or control of relevant activities for a duty to be imposed depends heavily upon the contents of documents internal, or passing between, the subsidiary and parent (cf. para 44 of Lord Briggs’ judgment in Vedanta and para 129 of Lord Hamblen’s judgment in Okpabi). Where exposure to asbestos occurred decades previously documentary evidence is likely to be incomplete. That is not to say there will be no documentation but rather it will take determination to obtain such documents as still exists. Trips to archives (local and national), libraries, and the locality are de rigueur. Full company documentation from Companies House (subsidiary and parent) may be required.
Fourthly, if you’re brining a case like this it may take a certain leap of faith at the outset. That is because the defendant (the parent company) may have much by way of disclosure but you probably will not get full disclosure until after issue and service and possibly (as happened in our case) disclosure will continue until the date of settlement. From a practical point of view this might mean needing to update the pleadings with the disclosure.
Finally, the level of intervention in the management of the subsidiary requisite to give rise to a duty of care is a “pure question of fact” (cf. para 44 of Lord Briggs’ judgment in Vedanta). The determination of that question of fact is dependent upon interpretation and evaluation of evidence by the judge. That means two things. Different judges can legitimately come to different conclusions. Second, and interconnect to the first, any appeal on a question of fact will be difficult. Accordingly, to win a case like this we think there needs to be a powerful and persuasive narrative as to why the parent ought to be held liable.