Restaurant owners can be liable for the bad acts of their customers, but the
franchisor of a restaurant has some level of protection for the unlawful
employment practices of its franchisees. In a recent case from the Tenth Circuit
in Lockard v. Pizza Hut, Inc. (10th Cir. 1998), a female waitress of a
franchisee-owned pizza restaurant suffered sexual harassment by two male
customers of the restaurant. The employee sued her employer, the franchisee, for
sexual harassment, and also sued the franchisor, Pizza Hut, Inc. In this case
the court considered two questions. First, is an employer liable for the sexual
harassment by customers of its employees? Second, is the franchisor liable for
the sexual harassment of the employees of its franchisee?
The waitress claimed that she was required by the restaurant manager to wait
on two crude and rowdy male customers who grabbed her hair, grabbed her breast,
and put his mouth on her breast. The jury returned a verdict in favor of the
employee against both the franchisee and the franchisor and awarded $200,000 in
compensatory damages. The trial court and the jury considered the franchisee and
the franchisor to be a single employer for purposes of employment practices and
held them both liable.
On appeal, the court held that an employer can be held liable for the
customer's sexual harassment of its employees. The court commented that customer
harassment is very similar to harassment by co-workers and should be evaluated
under similar standards. In this case, the facts supported a finding that the
employer should be liable for the sexual harassment committed by the customers.
However, the court held that the franchisor, Pizza Hut, was not liable for
the sexual harassment because the franchisor was not the employer of the
waitress. The court rejected the employee's argument that the franchisee and the
franchisor were a single employer for purposes of unlawful employment practices.
For this reason, the jury verdict was reversed as to the franchisor, but was
affirmed as to the franchisee.
The court held that the critical question in deciding whether the franchisor
(or parent company), is liable for the unlawful employment practice of the
franchisee (or subsidiary company), is which company made the final decisions
regarding the employment matter...