The Morrisons supermarket case – an employer’s liability for its staff

07 Mar 2016

As widely reported in the media, the Supreme Court has found that Morrisons Supermarkets were liable for a vicious assault on a customer by one of its employees. The employee worked at a Morrisons petrol station and the entirely unprovoked assault occurred after the victim had called at the petrol station to enquire whether it had facilities to print documents from a USB device.

Morrisons were liable under the legal principle of vicarious liability. An employer is vicariously liable for acts of their employees that are in close connection with their employment. The question in this case was whether a close connection existed and the Supreme Court found that it did. Applying a broad social justice test it said that a court should:

  • take a broad view of the nature of the job entrusted to the employee; and
  • ask whether there was a sufficient connection between the employee’s position and their wrongful act to make it right, under the principle of social justice, to hold the employer liable for the wrongdoing.

In the Morrisons case it was the employee’s job to attend to customers and his interaction with the victim was within the field of activities assigned to him. The assault was part of an unbroken sequence of events that started with the victim’s enquiry. Although it was a gross abuse of the employee’s position, it was in connection with the business in which he was employed to serve customers. The court said it was right that Morrisons should be responsible for it.

In another case on vicarious liability that was heard at the same time, the Supreme Court held that an employer could be liable for the acts of anyone involved in furthering its aims (whether those aims are commercial or not) if they are integrated into the employer’s organisation and working for its benefit. This could include employees, workers, self-employed individuals, secondees or contracted labour – the actual employment status of the individual is irrelevant.

The practical consequences for employers will be in:

  • agreeing terms with third parties e.g. agencies, sub-contractors, joint-venture partners
  • the terms of employers’ liability insurance policies and in particular ensuring that there is no mismatch between the vicarious liability cover offered and the potential legal exposure.

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