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Mitchel & Ors v United Co-operatives Ltd, Court of Appeal, 22 March 2012

5 April 2012
The issues

Stress – psychiatric injury – staff in retail store at risk of violence

The facts

Mrs Mitchell, Mrs Benton and Mrs Goodwin worked in the Co-op in Shaw Road, Heaton Moor between Stockport and Manchester. One day robbers came in and stole cigarettes and cash. The ladies were frightened and developed post traumatic stress and anxiety states as a result. They brought a claim against the Co-op for damages in respect of psychiatric injury. A risk assessment had been undertaken in 2003 had concluded that the overall risk rating in respect of robbery or shop lifting was high.

In the 11 years before the Co-op bought the shop there had been two robberies. Between February 2000 and December 2005 there had been 10. The previous owner of the shop had security screens around the tills and the areas containing high value goods. The Co-op removed those screens when they bought the shop. In the course of those robberies a shot gun had been used on one occasion, batons on another and a knife on a third. Mrs Mitchell, Mrs Benton and Mrs Goodwin had been in the shop on some of those occasions.

The Co-op had taken steps as a result of these robberies including CCTV monitoring both outside and inside the shop; panic alarms connected to a control centre; video surveillance; FOB operated door locks; minimising the amount of cash in the tills; the provision of smoke notes (notes which admitted a dye when passing the transmitter and the door way); staff training to avoid confrontation; provision of a part time security guard for a short period after a robbery had occurred and provision of a mobile security response team.

The judge accepted the evidence of Brian Edwards who had served for 30 years for the Metropolitan Police and who had given expert evidence for the Co-op to the effect that the Co-op’s policy compared favourable with that of other retailers.

The decision

The starting point was the duty of care owed by an employer to an employee to take reasonable care to keep the employees safe as expressed by Swanwick J in Stokes v Guest and recently proved by Lord Mance in Baker v Quantum Clothing Group. The Co-op had taken reasonable steps to deter robberies; no employer could be expected to go so far as to prevent any robbery taking place.

The direct link that the claimants had alleged between the removal of the screens and the incident of robberies had not been made out. The judge had been entitled to conclude that although the screen might have had a deterrent affect it carried risks for the staff which outweigh that benefit. The issue was not only what deterrent effect the screen would have had upon a robbery taking place but also what deterrent effect the screens would have to guard the employees against psychiatry injury. There was some evidence that the shop was running at a loss of about £60,000 per annum. The cost of provision of a full time guard was likely to be in the sum of £30,000 per annum. A proper approach required a balance to be struck against the probable effectiveness of a precaution that could be taken and the expense that it involved. By implication the judge had held such a balance and come down against requiring full time security. Having regard to the expert evidence his conclusion that the failure to provide full time guarding did not amount to a failure to take reasonable care was a conclusion he was entitled to reach.

Appeal dismissed.

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