Assault by the Department Store Santa: A Cautionary Tale

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Santa Claus Alabama Employment Law Respondeat Superior
A department store was found responsible for injuries caused by Santa Claus

Merry Christmas!  At about this time last year, I tried to provide some insight on the dangers of Christmas hams in the workplace:  The Dangers of Christmas Hams.  This year, in my never-ending quest to provide hard-hitting legal updates, I bring you a cautionary tale of assault by a department store Santa Claus:  Honeycutt v. Louis Pizitz Dry Goods, Co., 235 Ala. 507 (Ala. 1938).

This case is from 1938, so it’s what a lawyer might call “well-established law.”  As part of its holiday advertising, the Pizitz Department Store in Birmingham sent out into the community a truck with a full band playing music and an employee dressed as Santa Claus.  The band attracted a crowd and the Santa Claus threw presents and candy.  Unfortunately, an “all day sucker” struck Mrs. Linnie Honeycutt in eye.  Here is the Supreme Court’s recitation of the facts:

The evidence is without dispute that the defendant’s advertising scheme attracted several hundred women and children, who surrounded the truck carrying the band; defendant’s servant dressed as Santa Claus. That some of those in the crowd stood from seventy to seventy-five feet away from the truck; and that defendant’s servant standing in the truck threw with great force the articles being distributed into the crowd, and one of said “lollypops” struck plaintiff in the eye, producing an abrasion of the sclera of the eyeball across the pupil, resulting in an infection causing much pain and suffering and, there is evidence tending to show, causing partial dimness of the sight necessitating the use of spectacles which plaintiff had not before had to use.

Honeycutt, 235 Ala. at 509 (emphasis added).

A jury found in favor of Mrs. Honeycutt and Pizitz appealed, arguing that this was just an “accident.”  Unfortunately, the Supreme Court disagreed:  “If the missiles thrown — the lollipops — were of such nature and character as that they were liable to produce injury, and were thrown into the crowd of women and children with such force as to cause injury, the jury was warranted in finding the defendant liable under the [claim of assault and battery].”

The Honeycutt case doesn’t provide any earth-shaking principles of law.  But, it does reinforce one lesson which employers should already know:  employers can be held responsible by a jury for the actions of their employees — even if the employee is Santa Claus.

I hope you have a wonderful Holiday Season.!

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