Why it matters

Providing an important reminder about the potential for liability from customers, a new lawsuit was filed against a supermarket chain for allegedly failing to take action after a worker repeatedly complained about a customer's sexual harassment. Daphne Lannan alleged that during her time as a deli counter worker at a Safeway in Lebanon, Oregon, a customer made inappropriate comments about her body and what he would like to do to her while she made him chicken sandwiches. When Lannan complained, her manager said the employer couldn't do anything about the harassment unless a supervisor personally witnessed the behavior, she alleged. When the harassment continued, Lannan quit and filed suit against Safeway, seeking compensatory damages of $67,000. Employers would be well served to remember that liability for discrimination in the workplace can be imposed based on the actions of clients and customers as well as other employees and take appropriate action when such circumstances are alleged.

Detailed discussion

Daphne Lannan began working as a deli clerk on November 15, 2013 at the Safeway in Lebanon, Oregon. Lannan worked diligently for the employer and earned "repeated" praise for her work ethic and customer service, she claims, until she was forced to quit her job due to "severe and pervasive instances of sexual harassment."

Importantly, the harassment did not come at the hands of a co-worker. Instead, "an older, male, Safeway customer" repeatedly stared at her breasts, made "vulgar and perverted" comments about her breasts, including their size and how he wanted to touch them, and made inappropriate comments about her rear-end, including telling her to "move that ass" while she made his sandwich, according to the complaint.

Stressed and anxious about the customer, Lannan said she made repeated complaints about the sexual harassment to her supervisors. The employer did not take any action to stop the harassment, she alleged. "In fact, one supervisor responded to Plaintiff's sexual harassment complaint by telling Plaintiff that Safeway could not do anything about the sexual harassment unless a manager personally witnessed the customer sexually harassing Plaintiff."

Lannan backed up her allegations with affidavits from co-workers filed with her complaint. One fellow deli clerk said the customer would ask for Lannan when he didn't see her and "seemed disappointed she wouldn't be serving him" when she wasn't working; another female employee stated that the customer made inappropriate comments to her as well, asking if she had a boyfriend and talking about sex.

The harassment caused the plaintiff to "dread coming to work," and left her "depressed, anxious, and sad," she claimed. After the customer's comments continued into September 2014, she left work, telling management she could no longer tolerate the harassment. She later resigned.

Safeway violated Oregon state law prohibiting a hostile work environment and gender discrimination as the company knew about the sexual harassment but failed to take corrective action, Lannan alleged.

Her Oregon state court complaint seeks $42,000 in compensatory damages for loss of earnings, loss of benefits, loss of job opportunities, and other employment benefits, with an additional $25,000 requested for emotional distress.

To read the complaint in Lannan v. Safeway, Inc., click here.