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Supreme Court Deals Blow to Employers in Vicarious Liability Ruling

March 2016

The Supreme Court has given employers cause for concern by over-turning the High Court in the Court Appeal in a decision handed down last week in the case  of Mohamud –v- William Morrison Supermarkets Plc.

The actual facts of the case are extreme to say the least.  Way back in 2008, Mr Mohamud entered the petrol station kiosk at Morrisons Supermarket and asked if he could print documents from a USB stick.  He was served by Mr Khan who refused his request and then became extremely verbally abusive using deeply offensive racial slurs.  Mr Mohamud left the kiosk to return to his car.  Mr Khan followed him and then opened the door of his car and punched him.  There was never any suggestion that Mr Mohamud had provoked the assault.

The Trial Judge, and the Court of Appeal, dismissed a claim against the supermarket as there was an insufficiently close connection between what Mr Khan was employed to do and his violent assault on Mr Mohamud. They accepted that beating up customers was never a part of Mr Khan’s duties and there strict company policies in place concerning violence in the workplace.

The Supreme Court, unanimously, allowed Mr Mohamud’s appeal.  Mr Khan was employed by the Respondent and dealing with customers was part and parcel of his duties.  This did not stop when he followed Mr Mohamud to his car.  Furthermore, they took notice of the fact that Mr Khan told him never to come back to the filling station thus, in effect, purporting to give an order in connection with his employment.

Morrisons tried to argue, unsuccessfully, that Mr Khan was not motivated by any aspect of his employment but rather by personal racist views.  The Supreme Court were not having it and held that there was sufficient connection between Mr Khan’s duties and his conduct for his employer to be responsible. 

Clearly this is bad news for employers and it was difficult to see how an employer could ever avoid liability as it would never have been envisaged by Morrison’s Supermarkets that their employees would chase customers and punch them in the head.

The case also raises the interesting possibility that this argument can be used in a discrimination case where the employer, otherwise, would have a statutory defence under the Equality Act in that they had given an employee training on discrimination law and its strict policies regarding employees’ conduct. It is certainly a challenging time to be an employer.

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