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Retail update: Defamation, assault & food poisoning

Customer complaints are best dealt with out of court

Two recent High Court cases reflect the fact that poor customer service and failures to deal with complaints and claims in a proper manner at an early stage can lead to unexpected and unwelcome outcomes for retail and leisure businesses.

Yavuz v Tesco Stores Limited case

In Yavuz v Tesco Stores Limited an aggrieved customer at Tesco’s Lewisham branch commenced legal proceedings against Tesco claiming damages for defamation and trespass to the person. The incident leading to the proceedings concerned a shopping basket containing £15.20 worth of goods.

The claimant thought she had paid for the goods using a self-service checkout. She was about to leave the store but returned to ask a store assistant for her receipt. What happened next was the source of considerable dispute in court. The claimant stated that she had then been called a thief in public and had been manhandled by the Tesco employee. This was denied by Tesco. However, its employee had been cautioned previously by Tesco for poor and “aggressive” customer service. It was accepted by the court and Tesco that there was no intent on the part of the claimant to steal anything.

Ultimately the claimant failed in her claim which was heard over three days. Tesco was represented by a barrister with a solicitor in attendance. Tesco’s costs of defending the action were clearly totally out of proportion to the value of the goods that formed the subject matter of the dispute. It is also unlikely that the claimant will be in a position to settle Tesco’s costs.

The judgment does not paint the claimant in the best light and she lost her case on the evidence and the law. However, one has to wonder whether the outcome would have been different had another member of Tesco’s staff dealt with what was a perfectly normal request with a degree of civility. Regardless of the rights or wrongs of the matter this case reflects the importance of effective and continuing staff training for dealing with members of the public and that the poor handling or perceived poor handling of customer relations in store can lead to quite unexpected and unwelcome outcomes.

Chelfat v Chaudry’s Restaurant Limited case

In Chelfat v Chaudry’s Restaurant Limited (“Chaudry’s”), the claimant issued a claim in the Central London County Court for damages for a very serious bout of food poisoning which she contracted in 2012 and which had long lasting effects. Proceedings were issued three years after the event in 2015. The case was eventually heard in the Central London County Court on 16 January 2019. The claimant was awarded damages of £6,500.00 and costs. She then appealed the judge’s award of damages on the basis that they were too low. The appeal was heard in the High Court by Mr Justice Murray. The appeal succeeded and he awarded the claimant £10,958.50 in damages and also her costs of the appeal.

Calculating damages in straightforward personal injury cases should not be complicated exercise. Guidelines for the level of damages payable for pain and suffering are set out in the “Judicial College Guidelines For The Assessment of General Damages In Personal Injury Cases” (the “Guidelines”).

Had Chaudry’s taken a more active approach to the claim it could have been settled with a payment in accordance with the Guidelines at an early stage before proceedings were commenced or alternatively in advance of trial. Chaudry’s exposure to costs would also have been significantly reduced and it could have asked for a confidentiality clause to be part of any settlement.

One cannot dispute that Chaudry’s has been successful in avoiding paying the claimant any money for a number of years, if that was its aim. However, the judgment is now in the public domain and sets out, amongst other things, some very unsavoury details of Chaudry’s kitchen operations back in 2012, including that the claimant:

“….observed kitchen staff at the restaurant taking prepared Indian curries out of a cupboard, instead of a refrigerator, and then placing them into the oven for a few seconds, before pouring them straight into the chafing dishes for the buffet. The staff were wearing “casual and unhygienic” clothes. She saw a member of the restaurant staff mixing fresh fruit with contaminated or rotten fruit to make juice. She also saw a member of staff spitting in the sink and surrounding area where the fruit and the juice processor were located”.

Chaudry’s may well have cleaned up its act in recent years. However, this case is not going to help it increase its bookings anytime soon. Neither will it assist its current plan to franchise its business model for its buffet style restaurants across the UK. Would you invest?

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