The Supreme Court ruled today that the supermarket chain Morrisons is vicariously liable for the actions of an employee who seriously assaulted a customer.
Rejected first by the County Court and then by the Court of Appeal, the Supreme Court upheld the customer’s claim that Morrisons were liable for their employee’s actions even when those acts were personal acts not directly connected to his employment. The County Court and the Court of Appeal found an insufficiently close connection between what Mr Khan was employed to do and his actions against Mr Mohamud.
The customer, Mr Mohamud, was attacked in the forecourt of a Morrisons petrol station by the employee Mr Khan. The attack followed an altercation inside the petrol station when the employee verbally abused (including racist language) the customer when the customer asked if he could print out some documents on a USB device. Mr Khan continued the argument into the forecourt instructing the customer never to return to the petrol station; he then attacked Mr Mohamud, punching and kicking him repeatedly and ignoring attempts by his supervisor to stop the attack.
Prior to this ruling employers could only be held liable for the actions of their employees if the actions are carried out “in the course of their employment”, which did not cover wider criminal behaviour. The Supreme Court considered this closely and decided that Mr Khan’s attack followed on directly from his interaction with a customer, and his action of banning Mr Mohamud from returning to the petrol station implied he was acting on behalf of his employer.
This is a ground breaking ruling with potentially huge impacts for employers. It considerably broadens the definition of vicarious liability, making it easier for customers of a business who are assaulted or otherwise affected by staff committing an unlawful act whilst on duty, to hold the business liable. It is also likely to affect cases involving assaults or harassment in the workplace by co-workers.
Spectra HR would advise employers to look again at their induction process, training and policies to ensure that interactions with co-workers, customers and users of services are always beyond reproach. They should also deal swiftly with any issues that do arise.