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Supermarket is vicariously liable for employee attacking customer

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An unprovoked attack of a customer by an employee was considered by The highest UK court, the Supreme Court, whether Morrisons supermarket could be held responsible for the employee’s actions. They considered the scope of the ‘close connection’ test which is used by the courts to determine whether an employer is responsible for the acts of their employees.

What happened?

The customer parked his car at the supermarket petrol station and entered the kiosk. He asked the employee if some documents could be printed by a USB stick. After receiving a rude reply from the employee, the customer returned to his car. The employee followed him, opened the passenger door and threatened him before punching him. When the customer got out of the car to shut the passenger door, the employee seriously assaulted him. It was agreed that the customer was not at fault and the employee’s conduct was entirely unprovoked.

The customer issued a claim against the supermarket believing they were responsible for the actions of their employee. At first instance this was rejected by the Judge and the customer went to the Court of Appeal who agreed with the initial decision. They did not believe that the employee’s actions satisfied the close connection test and it would not be just to hold the supermarket responsible.

The customer further appealed to the Supreme Court where it was decided that the supermarket was responsible and therefore liable. The court considered the nature of the employees job and whether there was enough of a connection between the between the job and the wrongful conduct to make the employer liable.

The employee’s job was to attend to customer enquiries. So the conduct of the customer fell within the nature of his job and this connection was not broken.

I have employees – what does this mean for me?

You might be worried by the court’s decision in this case. But you should remember that each case is determined on its own facts and this case has not changed the existing test. The court has decided to take a broad brush approach to this claim, but there are cases where an employer has not been found to be liable for an employee’s actions. Do not be concerned that you will be responsible for every workplace assault! There are limitations in place with the close connection test, but this decision has provided important guidance to employers.

You should be careful when hiring employees and make sure you have sufficient supervision in place to deal with misconduct. You should also ensure you train staff appropriately and have clear policies in place setting out what you expect from your employees. Our Employment Team is happy to help if you need any advice.