Morrisons supermarket was “vicariously liable” for the actions of a former member of staff who assaulted a customer, the Supreme Court has ruled.
The court heard how Ahmed Mohamud entered a Morrisons petrol station kiosk in Birmingham in 2008 and asked Amjid Khan if he could print off some documents from a USB memory stick.
Mr Khan responded by using abusive and racist language. When Mr Mohamud left the kiosk, he was followed onto the forecourt and assaulted by Mr Khan in what was described as a “brutal attack” involving punches and kicks.
According to court documents, Mr Khan’s supervisor at the time told him not to follow Mr Mohamud onto the forecourt and urged him to return to the kiosk during the actual assault.
Mr Mohamud brought proceedings against Morrisons on the basis that it was vicariously liable for the actions of its employee Mr Khan. At court, he argued that Mr Khan should have been regarded as “wearing the badge of the employer” as he had been placed in a customer serving role by Morrisons and thereby interacted with customers on a daily basis.
But the court determined that vicarious liability will only be made where there is a sufficiently close connection between the wrongdoing and the employment so that it would be “fair and just” to hold the employer vicariously liable.
The trial judge dismissed the claim because although the assault took place at Mr Khan’s place of work, “the mere fact that the employment provided the opportunity, setting, time and place for the tort to occur is not necessarily sufficient… some other factor or feature going beyond the interaction between the employee and the victim is required.
“The decided cases have examined the question of close connection by reference to factors such as the granting of authority, the furtherance of an employer's aims, the inherence of friction or confrontation in the employment and the additional risk of the kind of wrong occurring.”
The court noted that if Morrisons were liable in almost every case where an employee was required to engage with the public their employer would be liable for any assault that entailed from such an interaction. The trial judge considered this to be a step too far.
The Court of Appeal upheld the judge’s decision. Mr Mohamud appealed, challenging whether the “close connection” test was the appropriate standard to apply. The Supreme Court then unanimously allowed Mr Mohamud’s appeal and held Morrisons vicariously liable for the actions of Mr Khan.
Vicarious liability is the legal responsibility imposed on an employer which makes the employer liable for the actions of an employee, which may well constitute a crime, committed in the course of their employment.
The Supreme Court’s decision has broadened the law which holds employers vicariously liable for the actions of their employees who break the law whilst at work. This ruling has now made it easier for customers of a business to hold them liable if they are assaulted by members of staff. It is also likely to affect cases of harassment or assault between employees in the workplace.
Matthew Tomlinson is a senior personal injury solicitor at Slater and Gordon Lawyers in Sheffield, specialising in work accident compensation claims.
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