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Court Holds Employer Liable For Attack by Staff Member

Court Holds Employer Liable For Attack by Staff Member

Are employers liable for an employees conduct

The supreme court has ruled that a supermarket chain is liable for the actions of a member of staff who physically attacked a customer.

Amjid Khan was working at a Morrisons petrol station in Birmingham in 2008 when he punched and kicked Ahmed Mohamud. Mohamud died in 2014 of an illness unrelated to the incident, and his family continued his legal claim.

The court’s unanimous judgment confirms the far-reaching consequences of the principle of “vicarious liability” and could make it easier for aggrieved customers to sue businesses in future.

Attack in petrol station forecourt

The attack took place on a Morrisons petrol station forecourt in Small Heath, Birmingham, in March 2008. The customer, Ahmed Mohamud, had checked the air pressure in his tyres and then approached the kiosk to see if it was possible to print documents he had on a USB stick. Amjid Khan, the Morrisons employee, refused and ordered Mohamud to drive away. He followed Mohamud on to the forecourt, pulled open the car’s passenger door and punched the customer in the head. Mohamud got out of his car but was knocked down by Khan and repeatedly kicked. A Morrisons supervisor intervened and attempted to prevent Khan from continuing with the assault.

Lawyers for Mohamud argued that Morrisons should be held responsible for the actions of one of their employees. Mohamud argued the kiosk assistant should be regarded as “wearing the badge” of Morrisons and “representing its brand standards”. The supermarket disputed the claim and both the high court and court of appeal declared that Morrisons was not responsible, on the grounds that there was not a sufficiently close connection between the job Khan was employed to do and his conduct in attacking Mohamud.

Supreme Court overrides earlier decisions on employee’s abuse of position

A panel of five supreme court justices analysed evidence at a hearing in London in October and delivered a ruling on Wednesday. The panel’s judgment disagrees with the earlier conclusion of the high court and court of appeal, saying it was wrong to regard Khan as “having metaphorically taken off his uniform the moment he stepped out from behind the counter”. When Khan followed Mohamud to his car and told him “not to come back to the petrol station”, he had been giving an “order” and “purporting to act about his employer’s business”, said the supreme court justice, Lord Toulson.

It “was a gross abuse of [Khan’s] position, but it was in connection with the business in which he was employed to serve customers,” Lord Toulson said. “His employers entrusted him with that position and . . . should be held responsible for their employee’s abuse of it”. Lord Toulson added that any personal motive for the attack was irrelevant: “It looks obvious that he was motivated by personal racism rather than a desire to benefit his employer’s business, but that is neither here nor there.”

A wake-up call for employers

The supreme court’s decision could have far-reaching implications for scores of companies and raises the prospect of firms being held responsible for acts committed by their staff.

It was previously only in cases where the employee’s role itself involved a risk that a crime could be committed that employers could be held liable. An employer would hitherto have been able to argue that a member of staff was acting for entirely personal reasons – “on a frolic of their own” – if they committed a crime.

This ruling makes it easier for customers of a business who are assaulted by staff, or affected by staff who commit any unlawful act whilst on duty, to hold the employer business liable.

Helping employers keep their employment law policies up-to-date

At IBB Solicitors, we take a proactive approach to workplace problems, helping employers find the best possible outcome for their employment issues. We can help advise on policy reviews and provide expert training for your HR team. Our specialist employment lawyers place heavy emphasis on continuing personal training and development, to ensure that they always present you with the most up-to-date legal and practical advice available.

Find out how we can help you settle disputes and stay on the right side of the UK’s ever-changing employment law by calling us on 01895 207892, or email your details to employment@ibblaw.co.uk.