(This guest post was written by Christopher Chan, who is currently studying for his Master of Laws at University College London. He is an aspiring barrister in London, England looking to practise in the areas of insolvency and restructuring.)
In the first part of my examination of Thor: the Dark World, I looked at who the University of Greenwich (“the Claimant”) could sue for the property damage it suffered as a result of the battle between Thor and Malekith in the final act of the film. Here, we take a look at whether the Claimant may still be compensated for its loss by suing the employer of the film’s protagonists, S.H.I.E.L.D., under the doctrine of vicarious liability.
The conclusion reached in my previous analysis was not a good one for the Claimant. There is a claim against Malekith, but serving his estate in the realm of Svartalfheim with a claim form would be difficult. Suing the God of Thunder presents the same problem, but there is also the additional concern of public authority immunity from negligence claims. Ms Foster, Mr Selvig, Ms Lewis and Mr Boothby (“the Additional Party”) all had a hand in the loss suffered by the Claimant as well, but the amount of assets they own would make recovery from them pointless. It would seem then that the University would have to pay for the renovation of their institution out of their own pocket.
Luckily, the University of Greenwich may still raise a claim against S.H.I.E.L.D. as the employer of the film’s protagonists. This would be under the doctrine of vicarious liability, which makes an employer liable for the torts committed by its employees. This is a very attractive option for the Claimant because not only is S.H.I.E.L.D.’s primary residence on Earth, it possesses a substantial fortune to recover from. In the second part of my analysis of Thor: the Dark World, I look at how the University of Greenwich can argue the doctrine of vicarious liability in English tort law in making S.H.I.E.L.D. liable for the negligence of Thor and his companions.
Simply put, vicarious liability makes an employer liable for a tort committed by the employee. The tort in question here is negligence. The doctrine requires that (i) a tort was committed by the employee; (ii) that the employee can be said to be in a relationship of employment with the employer; and (iii) that the tort was committed in the course of employment. In the first part of my analysis, I had established already the strong case that the Claimant has against the defendants for negligence. The following discussion will focus on the second and third requirements of vicarious liability as they relate to Thor and the Additional Party.
An employment relationship
It may seem obvious who the employee and employer are between the two parties, but determining whether such a relationship existed when a tort was committed has proven to be a complex matter for the Courts. The starting point will be something as simple as whether there is a contract of employment in existence. But beyond the hard evidence available, the traditional test has been one of control: an employer is someone who could not only tell an employee what to do, but also how to do it. Deviations are made from this general test depending on the facts and circumstances of each case. Take an employee who possesses special skill, such as the ability to summon lightning. An employer may well be able to tell Thor what to do with this skill, but giving orders on how to do so is another matter entirely!
In fact, the traditional test of control has shown its limits in applicability over the years. In the case of Cassidy v Ministry of Health  2 KB 343, an employer was found liable for the torts of its employees despite the fact that the latter had special skill and thus an absence of control. The modern approach of whether there is an employment relationship takes a holistic view; the courts will take a look at the entire relationship. Certain elements will undoubtedly be of particular significance, such as the degree of control, who has the right of appointment and dismissal, method of payment, and the provision of work equipment (Ready Mixed Concrete (South East) Ltd v Minister of Pensions and National Insurance  2 QB 497).
The film does not provide much evidence as to what sort of relationship S.H.I.E.L.D. has with Thor or the Additional Party. We know from Avengers Assemble that Thor is at the very least an Avenger, and Mr Selvig was working for S.H.I.E.L.D. at the beginning of that film before he was brainwashed by Loki. However, Mr Selvig was interned in a mental hospital by the time of Thor: the Dark World, so his employment with S.H.I.E.L.D. may have terminated. Finally, there is no indication as to whether Ms Foster, Ms Lewis and Mr Boothby work for S.H.I.E.L.D. either, despite sharing similar goals.
Regardless, let us not have something as silly as the lack of evidence halt us from our analysis. Were an employment relationship to be assumed, the Claimant must next prove that the tort committed by Thor and the Additional Party was done in the course of employment.
In the course of employment
It is not enough that S.H.I.E.L.D. was the employer at the relevant time; the tort must also be committed in the course of employment. So an employer cannot be made liable for a tort committed by an employee off the clock. Answering this question does however bring us back to the consideration made in the first part of my analysis concerning acting in a public versus private capacity. Remember, the UK Courts have shown a reluctance to impose a duty of care on a public authority for policy reasons. The preliminary question then is whether S.H.I.E.L.D. is a public authority.
The publication history of S.H.I.E.L.D. has shown that control over the organisation has shifted between the United Nations and the United States government depending on the storyline. Fortunately, both bodies are considered public authorities, which suffices for the purpose of this discussion. Thus, as employees of S.H.I.E.L.D., as a public body, there is a viable defence for our heroes to be exempt from liability for policy reasons.
Nevertheless, let us consider the possibility that S.H.I.E.L.D. is a private body. In determining this component of vicarious liability, the Courts have traditionally adopted the Salmond test. This test states that a tort will be committed in the course of employment if it is either (a) a wrongful act authorised by the master, or (b) a wrongful and unauthorised mode of doing some act authorised by the master. The Courts have however demonstrated a tendency to go beyond this test by looking at how closely connected the tort is with the employment.
The relevant principle to be applied concerning the close connection test is whether the tort is so closely connected to the employment, the employer can be said to have introduced the risk of the wrong (Lister v Hesley Hall Ltd  UKHL 22). The tort our heroes are liable for is the property damage they caused in the course of battling Malekith. The mandate of S.H.I.E.L.D. is the defence of Earth from paranormal and superhuman threats. It is therefore likely that Thor and his companions would be found acting in the course of their employment given the close connection found between the purpose of their conduct and the raison d’etre of S.H.I.E.L.D.
It can be concluded then that if S.H.I.E.L.D. is considered to be a public body, then our heroes have acted in the course of their employment sufficient to absolve themselves from liability. But if S.H.I.E.L.D. were a private body, then it would be vicariously liable for the torts committed.
Taking stock of the conclusions made in the first and second parts of my analysis, the University of Greenwich is advised to raise a claim against S.H.I.E.L.D. for the vicarious liability of Thor and the Additional Party. The defendant will argue vigorously that they should be exempt from liability on public policy grounds, but failing such a defence, the close connection test will prevent the employer from distancing itself from the actions of the film’s heroes. Claiming against S.H.I.E.L.D. is the most attractive option given the vast fortune it possesses, and the practical advantages of serving a claim form on a defendant that maintains a primary residence on Earth.