Washington State Supreme Court Says Employers are Strictly Liable for Employee Harassment of Customers

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The Washington State Supreme Court recently held that, “under the plain language of [Washington Law Against Discrimination], employers are directly liable for the sexual harassment of members of the public by their employees, just as they would be if their employees turned customers away because of their race, religion, or sexual orientation.”  Floeting v. Group Health, Inc., No. 95205-1.

The plaintiff in Floeting was a Group Health patient who alleged he was repeatedly sexually harassed by a Group Health employee during medical appointments.  He sued Group Health for the unwelcome and offensive sexual conduct.  The trial court dismissed the case on summary judgment but the dismissal was reversed on appeal.  The State Supreme Court held that because Group Health was a place of public accommodation, and because the Washington Law of Discrimination forbids – among other things – discrimination in places of public accommodation, Group Health was liable for its employee’s discriminatory treatment of the patient.  The Court adopted a “strict liability” standard which means that employers are liable any time their employees cause a prohibited harm “even if [the employer] did not participate in the discrimination and was not negligent in training or supervising its employees.”

For employers, Floeting underscores the importance of anti-discrimination policies, effective and robust workplace trainings, and established procedures for reporting harassment and discrimination.  Though these efforts may not mitigate an employer’s responsibility under Floeting, they go a long way toward minimizing the risk that inappropriate conduct will arise or flourish in the first place.  The Helsell employment law group is available to draft and update policies; conduct workplace trainings; and answer any questions you may have.  Please feel welcome to contact any of us.

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