Employer liable for assault on customer by employee

Morrison Supermarket was vicariously liable (responsible for) the actions of an employee when he attacked a customer, held the Supreme Court in Mohamud v WM Morrison Supermarkets plc.

The employee, Mr Khan, who worked in the supermarket’s petrol station kiosk, was verbally abusive to a customer (Mr Mohamud), using racist language. He then followed him to his car, telling him never to return to the supermarket and seriously assaulted him.

In holding Morrisons liable, the Supreme Court gave a wide interpretation to the traditional test of whether there was a sufficiently close connection between what Mr Khan was employed to do and his unlawful conduct. It asked two questions. First, what was the nature of his job? Mr Khan’s job was to deal with customers and interacting with customers was therefore within the scope of activities he was employed to do. Secondly, was there a sufficient connection between his position as an employee and his wrongful conduct to make it right for the employer to be liable? When Mr Khan followed Mr Mohamud to his car and ordered him not to come back, he was purporting to act on his employer’s behalf. The motive for the attack was irrelevant.

Although the facts of this case are extreme, there is potential for the decision to have wider significance, for example, where an employee bullies or harasses a colleague. It may be in such cases that, alongside potential discrimination and other employment claims, companies need to be mindful of civil liability for assault. Of course, prevention is better than cure and it is important to have appropriate policies and training in place, along with effective supervision of employees.