The Supreme Court has ruled that supermarket chain Morrisons is vicariously liable for an employee’s physical assault on a customer.
The ruling has not changed the law, but it does indicate that there is now a broader definition of an employer’s accountability for their employee’s actions.
Mr Amjid Khan, at the time an employee at a Morrisons petrol station in Birmingham, verbally and physically assaulted Mr Ahmed Mohamud in an unprovoked attack whilst at work in 2008.
Mr Mohamud stopped at the petrol station and asked Mr Khan if he could print some documents for him from a USB stick. Mr Khan responded with verbal and racial abuse before following Mr Mohamud to the forecourt. CCTV captured Mr Khan punching him to the ground before subjecting him to a “brutal attack involving punches and kicks.”
Mr Mohamud claimed that the attack left him with head injuries and psychological trauma. His family argued that the law should regard Mr Khan as “wearing the badge” of Morrisons and so “representing its brand standards”. Morrisons, which had already dismissed Mr Khan and offered to pay a settlement figure, successfully disputed the claim in the lower courts. Yet a panel of five Supreme Court justices ruled against the supermarket as it was wrong “to regard Mr Khan as having metaphorically taken off his uniform the moment he stepped out from behind the counter”.
They also ruled that when Mr Khan followed Mr 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”.
Being vicariously liable means that the employer assumes responsibility for the employee at fault. A two-stage test must be satisfied to establish whether this can be the case:
- Is there a relationship capable of giving rise to vicarious liability?
- Is the connection between the employment and the wrongful act by the employee close enough that it would be just and reasonable to impose liability on the employer?
The first component is relatively easy to meet as there was a clearly defined employment relationship. Focusing on the second component, the Supreme Court concluded that whilst Mr Khan’s actions constituted a gross abuse of his position, it was still in connection with the business of his employment which was to serve and interact with customers.
Whilst the legal test has not changed following this case, the basis for future claims has arguably widened. The prospect of an employer being held liable for their employee’s behaviour has increased.