High Court decision on vicarious liability for abuse within football

The High Court has ruled that Manchester City Football Club are not vicariously liable for abuse suffered by eight victims of convicted paedophile Barry Bennell between 1979 and 1985 when they were playing schoolboy football for teams that he coached.  The claimants argued that the relationship between Bennell and the club was ‘one of employment or one akin to employment’ and that the club should therefore be held vicariously liable for Bennell’s actions.

In his decision Mr Justice Johnson stated that ‘The connection between the abuse and Bennell’s relationship with MCFC [Manchester City football club] is insufficient to give rise to vicarious liability’ and that ‘the relationship gave Bennell the opportunity to commit the abuse, but MCFC had not entrusted the welfare of the claimants to Bennell. It follows that it has not been shown that MCFC is legally responsible for Bennell’s acts of abuse.’

Manchester City also argued that although Bennell was a scout for them in the mid 1970s he was not in such a position during the period of abuse.

Mr Justice Johnson also dismissed the claims on the grounds of limitation, stating that although there was a ‘good explanation’ for the delay in the claims, they were brought too late for there to be a fair trial, despite Bennell being alive and able to give evidence at Trial.

Bolt Burden Kemp, the solicitors representing the claimants, have already confirmed their intention to appeal the decision.

This decision follows on closely from the Court of Appeal’s judgment in September 2021 in the case of Blackpool FC v DSN.  In this case the High Court had held at first instance that the club was vicariously liable for the actions of an unpaid scout, Frank Roper, who had sexually abused the claimant whilst on a football tournament organised by Roper.  This was overturned in the Court of Appeal, who found that there was no relationship akin to employment between the club and Roper and further that the club did not have any control over Roper.

Written by David Milton, Partner at BLM (david.milton@blmlaw.com)

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