Liability of employers for the actions of their employees

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Mohamud v WM Morrison Supermarkets PLC

Many of you will have seen the media coverage that Morrisons supermarkets were found vicariously liable by the Supreme Court for the actions of an employee, despite such actions being a ‘gross abuse’ of the his position.

In Mohamud v WM Morrisons Supermarkets PLC, the Court overturned a decision that Morrisons were not liable for the actions of an employee who racially abused and assaulted a victim on the forecourt of a petrol station where he worked.

In an earlier decision on the case, the Court of Appeal had found that although the assault had occurred during work hours and at a Morrisons branch, there was not a ‘sufficiently close connection’ between the actions of the employee and job. The judges in the Court of Appeal considered that something more was needed, such as an obligation on the employee to keep order or a risk of confrontation being part of the employment, which they felt could not be made out in this case.

However, relying on earlier case law, the Supreme Court found a ‘close connection’ between the actions of the employee and his job.  They set out a two-stage test for the courts to use in future cases. First, the nature of the employment should be considered broadly. Second, the Court must identify a sufficient connection between the position of the employee and the wrongful act to make it right to hold the employer liable for the wrongdoing. In this case, the Court found that the employee’s conduct towards the claimant was within the ‘field of activities’ assigned to him as he was attempting to remove the claimant from his employer’s premises, albeit using violence, and was therefore purporting to act on behalf of Morrisons. Given that the company had entrusted the employee with his position of employment, they should also be responsible for the abuse of that position by the employee.

This will be a concern to all employers and in particular those that provide services to the public.  Dealing with matters after they have arisen will in many circumstances be too late and the case highlights the need for employers to ensure that they clearly set out and train employees on what is and is not expected of them (something employers should be doing in any event in terms of equality and diversity to be able to assist in any statutory defence arguments) and that employees are managed appropriately.

For more information, help or advice please contact Chris Maddock on 0191 211 7919 or email [email protected].