Exemption clauses and thieving employees: Can you sue (or be sued)?

“Where one of the parties wishes to be absolved either wholly or partially from an obligation or liability which would or could arise at common law under a contract of the kind which the parties intend to conclude, it is for that party to ensure that the extent to which he, she or it is to be absolved is plainly spelt out.”

Employee theft has been a headache for employers from the dawn of history, and no business should ignore the dangers it poses, particularly if your business handles third-party high value goods. Your chances of being sued if one of your employees steals a customer’s asset/s are high, the reason being of course the concept of “vicarious liability” – the legal rule that can make you generally liable for your employee’s actions.

Your best defence (other naturally than taking steps to stop light-fingered employees from stealing in the first place!) is the “exemption” or “disclaimer” clause. It can present a formidable obstacle to any customer (or their insurer) seeking to hold you liable, but it needs to be professionally drawn, unambiguous, and tailored to suit your particular industry, circumstances and contracts.

A recent Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) decision illustrates –

The cargo thief who stole R4.5m worth of computers

A customer imported by air freight some R4.5m worth of computers and accessories, and contracted a clearing and forwarding agent to receive and forward them to the customer from the SAA cargo warehouse.

The agent’s employee, armed with his “identity verification system” card and the necessary custom release documents, collected and loaded the consignment into an unmarked truck, signed the cargo delivery slip, and disappeared with his loot.

Sued by the customer for its losses, the agent relied on the exemption clauses in its Standard Trading Terms and Conditions. These clauses were comprehensive and widely worded which, as we shall see below, proved central to the agent’s legal victory here.

On appeal the SCA dismissed the claim against the agent on the basis that it had been able to prove that its liability was excluded by the exemption clauses. Let’s see how it achieved that…

Employers – can you be sued?

Without an enforceable exemption clause in its standard contract, the employer in this case would have been liable for R4.5m (plus substantial legal costs).
Critically, the forwarding agent’s success here resulted from the Court’s interpretation of the wording of these particular clauses, in the context of this particular contract, and in the particular circumstances of this matter. Any ambiguity in meaning would have been fatal for it, and it was particularly assisted in this case by the fact that it had made special provision in the contract for “goods requiring special arrangements”. In other words, make sure your contracts all contain unambiguously worded exemption clauses tailored to your specific industry and circumstances.

Customers – can you sue?

Read and understand the contracts you sign, follow any requirements applying to specified or “valuable” goods, and take professional advice if you are unhappy with any of the terms. The reality is however that few service providers will be prepared to compromise on exemption clauses, which leaves you vulnerable unless you have the right type of insurance cover – check upfront!