HR Management & Compliance

Liability for Employees’ Acts: New Case Limits Your Responsibility to Customers

Employers are generally held legally accountable for their employees’ conduct. But one employer recently persuaded the California Supreme Court to limit this rule. The case involved the question of whether an employee of a fast-food restaurant acted properly during an armed robbery. Although the Supreme Court let the employer off the hook, the case points out the unexpected problems you can have when your employees are faced with violence at work.

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Robber Demands Money and Threatens Customer

During a holdup at a Redondo Beach Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant, a robber put a gun to customer Kathy Brown’s back and took her cash and wallet. The thief then demanded that KFC’s clerk open the cash register. But the employee tried to stall. She lied, saying she couldn’t open the till because the key was in the back of the restaurant. The robber became agitated and threatened to kill Brown if the clerk didn’t give him the cash. With both Brown and the robber screaming at the clerk to turn over the money, the employee finally complied and the robber fled. Although no one was physically hurt, the story didn’t end there.

Customer Charges Company Failed to Protect Her

Brown turned around and sued KFC, claiming she suffered severe emotional distress from the incident. According to Brown, her life had been put at risk by the clerk’s stalling tactics.

In ruling on KFC’s request to dismiss the case, the Supreme Court pointed out that employers generally have a duty to act reasonably and protect people from criminals who enter company property. But the court went on to say that you don’t have a duty to protect customers or others if it means yielding to a robber’s demands to turn over money or other property.4

But the court cautioned-without further explanation-that if the clerk had actively resisted the robber and this provoked him to hurt the customer, it might have been a different story. Since the court believed the employee had only passively resisted, however, Brown’s claims against KFC were thrown out.

Advice for Workplace Safety

Even though the court ruled for the employer in this case, it’s still important to train your workers how to act during a robbery. Most experts believe that employees faced with a holdup should immediately obey an armed robber’s demands for money and offer no resistance. And your employees should never, ever provoke a criminal. For further information, see CEA Special Workplace Security Supplement, September 1994, or call your nearest Cal/OSHA Consultation Service office.


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