Vicarious liability for employee assault

Posted: 4th March 2016

SCIn a case of which all employers who have dealings with the public should take note, the Supreme Court has upheld a damages claim in respect of an incident in which a supermarket customer was savagely beaten by a petrol station attendant. In a ruling which broke new legal ground, the Court found that the attendant’s employers, a national supermarket chain, were vicariously liable for his appalling behaviour.

The customer had gone to the petrol station to check his tyre pressures but had also asked the attendant if he could use its facilities to print out some documents from a USB stick. His request was met by a torrent of racist abuse. After pursuing him onto the forecourt, the attendant punched and kicked him repeatedly as he lay prone. He suffered serious head injuries which resulted in him developing epilepsy.

The customer sued the supermarket chain but had his case dismissed by a judge, and subsequently by the Court of Appeal, on the basis that what the attendant did was no part of his job and that his employers could not be held legally responsible for his behaviour. The customer had died during the course of the proceedings, but lawyers representing his family continued to pursue the case.

In upholding the family’s appeal, the Court noted that it was part of the attendant’s job to attend to customers, to interact with them and to respond to their inquiries. His conduct was inexcusable and it could not be said that he had metaphorically taken off his uniform the moment he stepped out from behind the counter.

In ordering the customer never to return to the petrol station, the attendant was purporting to act in his capacity as a supermarket employee. His motive in launching the attack was irrelevant and it mattered not whether his actions were driven by personal racism rather than a desire to benefit his employers’ business.

The Court’s decision opened the way for the customer’s estate and dependants to seek substantial compensation in respect of his lost earnings and the pain and suffering he endured before his death. The amount of damages payable by the supermarket chain had yet to be assessed.