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Supermarket held liable for employee’s assault on customer

Posted: 30th March 2016   In: Business Employment, Individual Employment

A supermarket has been held liable after one of its employees carried out an unprovoked assault on a customer.

The incident arose when a customer asked for help from a kiosk attendant at a petrol station run by the supermarket. The attendant responded with foul-mouthed abuse and ordered the customer to leave.

He then followed him on to the forecourt where he told him to keep away and subjected him to a violent and unprovoked assault. The customer took legal action against the supermarket, claiming that it was vicariously liable for the attack.

The trial judge held that it was not liable because there was no sufficiently close connection between the assault and what the attendant was employed to do.

The Court of Appeal upheld the decision. The case then went to the Supreme Court, which has now ruled in favour of the customer.

It said it was the attendant’s job to attend to customers and respond to their inquiries. His conduct in answering the customer's request in a foul-mouthed way and ordering him to leave was inexcusable but was within the field of activities assigned to him.

While on the forecourt, the attendant had repeated his order to leave. That was not something personal between him and the customer; he was ordering him to keep away from his employer's premises. He reinforced that order by violence. In doing so he was purporting to act in the furtherance of his employer's business.

While it was a gross abuse of his position, it was in connection with the business in which he was employed. Since the supermarket had entrusted him with the position of serving customers, it was right that it should be held responsible for his abuse of that position.

It was irrelevant that it looked as if the attendant was motivated by personal racism rather than a desire to benefit his employer's business.

Please contact Robert Bedford if you would like more information about the issues raised in this article or any aspect of employment law.