Employer Liability for Violence in the Workplace

An altercation at an Autozone store in Orange County California has put employer liability for violence in the workplace back in the news.

A customer was at the store to buy motor oil when he whistled at an employee in order to get his attention. The employee, a sales manager, took the whistling as an insult, and after a verbal exchange, hit the customer with a metal pipe.

The customer filed a lawsuit, contending that AutoZone was negligent in hiring, retaining, and training the employee, in light of his allegedly violent background. In particular, the sales manager had a juvenile delinquency record for attempted murder, although AutoZone was unaware of it. And, AutoZone had previously given the manager a written warning for raising his voice to a customer.

The CA appellate court ruled that the customer-victim can take his vicarious liability claim to trial.

Under California law, an employer is vicariously liable for its employees’ wrongdoings that are committed within the scope of the employment, and an employee’s willful, malicious, and even criminal acts may fall within the employment scope.

The appeals court, however, went on to reject the negligence accusations. According to the court, AutoZone had no duty to do a more-thorough background check before hiring the employee—and even had the company done more, it still might not have uncovered the juvenile record. What’s more, the prior incident in which the manager raised his voice with a customer wasn’t a red flag that he might be violent.

Avoid Liability

What can employers do to avoid liability—either vicarious or because of the employer’s own negligence—stemming from an employee’s violent outburst?

What can employers do to avoid liability—either vicarious or because of the employer’s own negligence—stemming from an employee’s violent outburst?

What can employers do to avoid liability—either vicarious or because of the employer’s own negligence—stemming from an employee’s violent outburst?

    • First, be sure to investigate job applicants’ backgrounds before they’re hired. This is especially true if the worker will have unsupervised conduct with third parties or the public.

    • Second, take care to monitor employees’ conduct, particularly, if given the nature of the job, there’s a possibility that violence could erupt. If you don’t, you could be liable for negligently supervising an employee who ends up assaulting a customer or co-worker.

    • Third, promptly respond to complaints or warning signs. If you become aware of a possible problem with an employee, you will face bigger legal risks if you don’t investigate and take action.

Flores v. AutoZone West, Inc., Calif. Court of Appeals (Dist. 4, No. G038322 (2008))

Courtesy Business & Legal Reports, Inc.

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