The Courts recently ruled that an employer can be held liable for an unprovoked assault by one of its employees on a customer if there is a sufficiently close connection between the employee’s job and the wrongful conduct.
The claimant had entered a petrol station kiosk at one of the defendant’s supermarkets and asked the cashier if it was possible to print off some documents which were stored on a USB stick. The cashier refused the request in an offensive manner and, following an exchange of words in which he used racist and abusive language, ordered the claimant to leave. When the claimant walked out of the kiosk the cashier followed him and, having told him in threatening language never to return, subjected the claimant to a serious attack involving punches and kicks.
In considering the claim against the employer, the Court had to ponder two issues.
- Firstly, was there a relationship between the defendant (the employer) and the wrong-doer (the cashier). Clearly there was.
- Secondly, was there sufficient connection between that relationship and the wrong-doer’s act. In the present case it had been the cashier’s job to attend to customers and to respond to their enquiries. His conduct in answering the claimant’s request in a foul-mouthed way and ordering him to leave was inexcusable but within the “field of activities” assigned to him. Then, when the cashier followed the claimant back to his car, he again told the claimant in threatening words that he was never to come back to the petrol station. That was not something personal between them; it was an order to keep away from his employer’s premises, which he reinforced by violence. As such, what happened as an unbroken sequence of events that happened in connection with the business in which he was employed.
The Court found that the cashier’s employers had entrusted him with his position. He was purporting to act about his employer’s business. It was a gross abuse of his position, but it was in connection with the business in which he was employed to serve customers. As such, the employer was held responsible for their employee’s actions.
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