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Employers can be held responsible for crimes committed by staff at work, the UK supreme court has ruled.

The decision by the UK’s most influential law court has far-reaching consequences on the principle of ‘vicarious liability’. This is when someone is held liable for another’s acts.

The case involved a Morrisons customer who was subjected to a violent, racist assault, which happened on one the supermarket’s petrol station forecourts in Small Heath, Birmingham, in 2008.

The customer was Ahmed Mohamud who was checking the air pressure in his tyres and then asked at the kiosk whether he could print off a document from a USB stick.

Amjid Khan, the Morrisons employee, refused and ordered Mohamud to drive away using ‘foul, racist and threatening language’. Khan followed Mohamud outside, pulled open the car’s passenger door and punched the customer in the head.

Mohamud got out of his car but was knocked to the floor by Khan and repeatedly kicked. A Morrisons supervisor intervened to put a stop to the fight.

Mohamud launched a claim for compensation against Morrisons and has since died from an unrelated illness.

Both the high court and court of appeal declared that Morrisons was not responsible, on the grounds that there was not a sufficiently close connection between what Khan was employed to do and his conduct in attacking Mohamud.

But the supreme court judgment disagrees with that conclusion, saying it was wrong to ‘to regard Mr Khan as having metaphorically taken off his uniform the moment he stepped out from behind the counter’.