Imperial Chemical Industries v Shatwell

March 26, 2024
Micheal James

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Introduction to Imperial Chemical Industries v Shatwell

The quest for a safe work environment is a constant tension between employer responsibility and employee conduct. The landmark case of Imperial Chemical Industries Ltd v Shatwell [1965] AC 656 exemplifies this tension, shaping the legal landscape of employer liability for employee injuries arising from disregarding safety protocols. This case study delves into the facts, legal issues, arguments presented, and the court’s judgment, followed by a discussion of its impact and ongoing relevance.

Facts of the Case:

The case involved the Shatwell brothers, employed by Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) at a munitions factory. Their task was to test an electrical circuit used for detonating explosives, an inherently dangerous undertaking. Safety regulations mandated using specific, approved materials for such testing, and employees received clear instructions to adhere to these protocols. However, due to a lack of readily available approved materials, the Shatwell brothers deviated from established procedures. They opted to use unauthorized and inadequate wiring to complete the test circuit, resulting in an explosion that caused them serious injuries.

Legal Issue:

The central legal issue centered on whether ICI, the employer, could be held vicariously liable for the injuries sustained by the Shatwell brothers. Vicarious liability holds an employer accountable for the wrongful acts of an employee committed “in the course of employment.” The question revolved around whether the employees’ actions, despite occurring at the workplace and related to their general duties, fell within the scope of their employment given their blatant disregard for safety protocols.

Arguments Presented:

  • Plaintiffs (Shatwell Brothers): The brothers argued that they were acting within the scope of their employment while testing the circuit, and thus, ICI bore the responsibility for their injuries. They further contended that the lack of proper materials provided by the employer contributed to the accident, implying a lapse in ICI’s duty of care.
  • Defendant (ICI): The employer countered that the Shatwell brothers were solely responsible for their injuries resulting from their deliberate violation of clear safety instructions and established regulations. ICI emphasized that it fulfilled its obligation by providing adequate training and safety protocols, which the brothers willfully ignored.


The House of Lords ruled in favor of ICI, the employer. While acknowledging the employer’s general duty to provide a safe working environment, the court concluded that the Shatwell brothers’ actions constituted a significant deviation from their assigned tasks and safety protocols. The judge, Lord Reid, emphasized that the brothers knowingly exposed themselves to a foreseeable risk by employing unauthorized and dangerous materials. Since the accident stemmed directly from their willful disobedience, the court concluded that the doctrine of volenti non fit injuria applied. This legal principle, meaning “to one who is willing, no injury is done,” suggests that an employee who knowingly exposes themself to a risk by disobeying safety rules may be barred from recovery from their employer.

Discussion and Impact:

The Imperial Chemical Industries v Shatwell case has had a significant impact on the legal landscape of employer liability for employee injuries. It highlights some crucial legal concepts:

  • Volenti non fit injuria: This case serves as a prominent example of the application of volenti non fit injuria in employer-employee relationships. It establishes that an employee’s deliberate disregard for safety instructions and established protocols can potentially bar them from recovering damages from their employer.
  • Contributory Negligence: The concept of contributory negligence, where an employee’s own actions contribute to their injury, played a significant role in the court’s decision. The Shatwell brothers’ deliberate use of unauthorized materials constituted a significant breach of safety protocols, ultimately affecting their ability to claim full compensation from their employer.
  • Balance in Workplace Safety: The case underscores the importance of striking a balance between employer responsibility for providing a safe work environment and employee responsibility for following established safety guidelines. While employers have a duty to provide proper training and equipment, employees also have a responsibility to act within those guidelines to ensure their own safety and that of their colleagues.


Imperial Chemical Industries v Shatwell presents a landmark case in defining the boundaries of employer liability for employee injuries. It underscores the importance of clear communication.

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