Assault claims against employees – who is liable?
As members of the public we all interact with businesses and their employees. Normally, matters are conducted in an appropriate way — but occasionally things go wrong. So what happens if you are subjected to assault by a company employee?
Like everyone else, an employee has a duty of care to the public and, if that employee causes injury by acting negligently or violently, then a claim may be made against the employer. UK law considers employers to be ‘vicariously liable’ for the actions of their employees if there is a sufficiently close relationship between an employee’s terms of employment and the conduct that caused the injury.
In 2001, a landmark House of Lords ruling (Lister v Helsey Hall Ltd.) dealt with a claim arising from an assault against a pupil by a school warden. Although the case was lost at first hearing, the House of Lords overturned this decision, highlighting as crucial the connection between the employee’s act and terms of employment.
Another case considered the actions of a petrol-tanker driver who caused an explosion by smoking a cigarette whilst engaged in transferring petrol from his tanker to a petrol station. The court found that a requirement of the job was to transfer the fuel safely and therefore his action was deemed misconduct under the terms of employment. Separately, a bartender threw a glass of beer over a customer; the pub owners were found by the court not to be vicariously liable because their employee was not employed to maintain order. For this reason it was decided there was insufficient connection between the action and the duties of employment although, according to one of the judges, if the bartender had been authorised to maintain order, the position would have been different even he was acting to settle a private score.
More recently, a claim succeeded against a leading supermarket chain in respect of a violent assault by an employee (Mohamud v WM Morrison Supermarkets plc). The court found the company liable for its employee’s conduct after a petrol station customer was subjected to verbal abuse by an attendant who then followed him to his car and physically assaulted him. Whilst the employee’s action was clearly a gross abuse of his position, his violence was also deemed to be connected to his customer service role.
Garry Sleet, personal injury department.General, George Ide, News, Personal Injury Blog