The recent case of Nicholas Trabulsy v. Publix Supermarkets, Inc., 39 Fla. L. Weekly D927 (Fla. 5th DCA April 30, 2014) serves as a reminder to Florida employers about the need to carefully screen applicants to avoid hiring people with dangerous or violent propensities and the need to properly train employees on how to behave when dealing with difficult customers. In Trabulsy, the Fifth District Court of Appeals reversed summary judgment in favor of the employer in a case involving intentional acts by an employee against a patron. According to the complaint, an employee and the patron became involved in a verbal altercation over a shopping cart, which led to the employee shoving the patron who fell to the floor and sustained injuries. The patron and the employee presented conflicting versions about the impetus of the shoving incident. While the patron alleged the employee overreacted to the verbal altercation when the employee shoved him, the employee claimed that he acted in self-defense in shoving the patron. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Publix and found as a matter of law that the employee had acted outside the scope of his employment when he shoved the patron.
On appeal, the Fifth District Court of Appeals reversed the trial court and noted that “[a]n employer’s liability for an employee’s intentional acts may arise when the acts are within the real or apparent scope of employment.” (internal quotation omitted). To determine liability, the trial court was required to examine the purpose of the employee’s act, not the means by which the act was performed. Accordingly, the appellate court held that the issue of the employee’s motivation in shoving the patron was within the province of the jury to be resolved at trial. Citing numerous Florida cases, the appellate court noted that “courts have repeatedly concluded that the employee’s purpose in committing a battery is a jury question.” The appellate court also rejected the employer’s reliance upon its internal policy against physical confrontations with patrons. The court found that the issue of whether an employee violated company policy only addressed the employee’s actual authority and not the employee’s apparent authority. As to the latter, the court concluded that “whether the employer authorized the act, or even forbade it, is immaterial.”