Employer may be liable when employee attacks

Sometimes an employee gets into an argument with a customer, and what began as a war of words turns into actual violence. When that happens, the employer may be on the hook for damages. Under the right conditions—or more precisely, the wrong ones—the employer may be liable for physical altercations its employee may engage in while working.

Recent case: Juan Flores sued Autozone after one of its employees allegedly beat him with a metal pipe. Flores claimed the company was responsible because the argument that led to the assault was related to a question Flores had about merchandise.

Flores said he came into the store looking for motor oil and couldn’t find the price. He then apparently whistled to get an employee’s attention. The employee told Flores, “Don’t whistle. You say, ‘Excuse me.’” Then he asked Flores if he was too stupid to read the prices displayed on the shelves. Flores then told the employee that perhaps he shouldn’t come to work if he didn’t want to do his job. The employee responded by hitting Flores over the head with the pipe.

Autozone immediately fired the employee, but Flores sued, alleging that the employer was vicariously liable for its employee’s violent act. The court dismissed the case, but Flores appealed.

The court of appeal reinstated part of the lawsuit, explaining that if the argument that led to the violent outburst was related to work, the employer could be held liable for its employee’s act. It sent the case back for trial.

The court did, however, reject negligent hiring and supervision claims, saying that employers aren’t required to give psychological tests before allowing employees to have customer contact. (Flores v. Autozone, No. G03822, Court of Appeal of California, Fourth Appellate Division, 2008)

Note: Acts of violence are, by nature, unpredictable. If a standard background check fails to reveal a violent criminal record, it may be impossible for an employer to protect against this sort of liability. However, in some cases there are warning signs. Anger at co-workers or supervisors may be one clue.