An Exception to the Vicarious Liability Doctrine: Armstrong v. Food Lion

In the case of Armstrong v. Food Lion, 371 S.C. 271, 639 S.E.2d 50 (2006), the Supreme Court held a supermarket retailer was not liable for an attack upon a customer by employees while the customer was in the store. The Court determined that while the employee was on duty at the time of the incident, his actions were outside the scope of his employment. Accordingly, the store was not responsible via the doctrine of respondeat superior or vicarious liability. This is a decision, which is favorable to retail and hospitality entities operating in South Carolina.

With regard to the facts, the plaintiff, Ronnie Armstrong went to the Winnsboro, South Carolina Food Lion store on December 14, 1998, to purchase groceries with his sister and his mother Tillie Armostrong (Tillie). As Ronnie walked up the aisle of the store, three men in Food Lion uniforms approached him. Ronnie stated that Byron Brown approached and said “What’s up?,” and Ronnie replied, “Nothing.” Ronnie testified that Brown then attacked him with a box cutter. Brown cut Ronnie in the face and neck and a second employee, Marcus Cameron, also began attacking him after he fell on the floor. Cameron cut him with another box cutter on his back.

When Ronnie’s mother, Tillie, came to his aid, Cameron punched her in the chest and knocked her to the floor. A witness helped Tillie up and pulled Cameron off of Ronnie. Brown then backed off. Ronnie testified that, “I don’t know why they cut me. They just attacked me for no reason. I said nothing to provoke anyone.” On cross-examination, Ronnie stated he had a confrontation with Brown two years prior to the incident, and Brown had threatened to kill him.
The witness testified that, when he first entered Food Lion, he saw three employees at the front of the store “goofing off” and not working. Two of those employees were Brown and Cameron. He stated that, after Ronnie and the employees approached each other, he saw one employee hit Ronnie causing him to bleed.
Ronnie and Tillie subsequently filed suit against Food Lion, alleging causes of action for assault, battery, outrage, premises liability, negligence, and negligence per se.

Following the presentation of the plaintiffs’ case, Food Lion moved for a directed verdict, arguing petitioners had failed to present evidence that Brown and Cameron were acting within the scope of their employment at the time of the assault. During the plaintiffs’ argument in response, counsel admitted Brown and Cameron “were goofing off at the time.” The trial court granted a directed verdict in Food Lion’s favor as to the plaintiffs’ causes of action for assault, assault and battery, and outrage based on petitioners’ failure to show the assault was committed for the purpose of, or in some way furthering, Food Lion’s business. The negligence claim went to the jury, which returned a verdict in favor of Food Lion.

The Court of Appeals affirmed. Upon its own review, the Supreme Court agreed:

The doctrine of respondeat superior rests upon the relation of master and servant. Lane v. Modern Music, Inc., 244 S.C. 299, 136 S.E.2d 713 (1964). A plaintiff seeking recovery from the master for injuries must establish that the relationship existed at the time of the injuries, and also that the servant was then about his master’s business and acting within the scope of his employment. Id. An act is within the scope of a servant’s employment where reasonably necessary to accomplish the purpose of his employment and in furtherance of the master’s business. Id. These general principles govern in determining whether an employer is liable for the acts of his servant. Id.
The act of a servant done to effect some independent purpose of his own and not with reference to the service in which he is employed, or while he is acting as his own master for the time being, is not within the scope of his employment so as to render the master liable therefor. Lane, supra. Under these circumstances the servant alone is liable for the injuries inflicted. Id. If a servant steps aside from the master’s business for some purpose wholly disconnected with his employment, the relation of master and servant is temporarily suspended; this is so no matter how short the time, and the master is not liable for his acts during such time. Id.

The trial court appropriately granted a directed verdict because petitioners failed to produce any evidence that the Food Lion employees were acting within the scope of their employment or in furtherance of Food Lion’s business when they attacked petitioners. The only reasonable inference from the testimony is that Brown and Cameron attacked Ronnie for their own personal reasons and not for any reason related to their employment. They were acting “to effect an independent purpose of their own.” See Lane, supra (act of servant done to effect some independent purpose of his own is not within scope of his employment). Food Lion was not legally liable because the employees stepped away from their job of stocking shelves. See Lane, supra (employer not liable where employee stepped away from the employer’s business to play a prank); Hamilton v. Davis, 300 S.C. 411, 389 S.E.2d 297 (Ct.App.1990) (same).

Two cases that have previously found an employer liable for its employee’s assault of another person are distinguishable from the instant case. In Crittenden v. Thompson-Walker Co., Inc., 288 S.C. 112, 341 S.E.2d 385 (Ct. App. 1986), an employee assaulted another person in an attempt to collect a debt of the business. In Jones v. Elbert, 211 S.C. 553, 34 S.E.2d 796 (1945), a dairy farm’s general manager assaulted the owner of a company contracted to provide a refrigerating system. The assault resulted from a dispute arising over problems with the system. The factor that distinguishes these cases from the instant case is that the assaults in Jones and Crittenden occurred, not merely in connection with the master’s business, but with the purpose of in some way furthering the master’s business. Here, there is no evidence that Brown and Cameron were furthering Food Lion’s business in any manner. Accordingly, the trial court properly granted Food Lion’s motion for a directed verdict.
Id. at 276-278, 639 S.E.2d at 52-3.
Armstrong is important to retailers and hospitality entities doing business in South Carolina because the business of retailing and hospitality is built upon the employees. That’s how customer service is provided. Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of the employers to train and supervise its workforce, some employees will from time to time deviate from their work and perform pranks – or worse – commit criminal acts like the one found in Armstrong. While a short and simple opinion, Armstrong is an important one because it reaffirms the rule that assaults and pranks performed by employees while on company time does not automatically mean liability for the employer.
About Christian Stegmaier
Senior Shareholder

Christian Stegmaier is a shareholder and chair of the Retail & Hospitality Practice Group at Collins & Lacy in Columbia. He is also active in the firm’s professional liability and appellate practices. Stegmaier welcomes your questions at (803) 255-0454 or