DUNNES STORES HAD no option but to sack a check-out assistant for selling alcohol to a 16-year-old schoolgirl who bought it on the instructions of an undercover garda, a judge has ruled.
Circuit Court President, Mr Justice Raymond Groarke, heard that the plain clothes garda identified herself to Anna Perenc only after the sale of a bottle of wine to the girl had gone through at Stephen’s Green, Dublin, the company’s biggest store.
He overturned a decision of the Employment Appeals Tribunal which had directed Dunnes to pay Perenc €16,000 compensation for unfair dismissal.
Barrister Marcus Dowling, counsel for Dunnes, told the Circuit Civil Court that the company operated one of the most stringent procedures of any retailer in the country in order to make it almost impossible for an under-18 year old to be sold alcohol.
Mr Dowling, who appeared with solicitors Byrne Wallace, said that twice a year all check-out staff underwent training that highlighted the company’s identity checks on alcohol sales to anyone under the age of 23 – five years older than the legal limit – and warnings were posted in staff rooms.
“Whenever an alcohol sale is registered the check-out screen flashes red and directly prompts the employee to carry out a number of checks regarding the appearance and age of the purchaser,” Mr Dowling said.
He told the court the sale of alcohol to a child was a criminal offence both for the sales operative and Dunnes and the Stephen’s Green store could have been closed down by the gardai for anything between two and 30 days.
He said the facts surrounding the sale were accepted by both parties who also agreed the young girl used by the undercover garda looked her age and did not look 18 or older and certainly not over 23.
Perenc, who was represented by Mandate Trade Union which is not recognised in any negotiating role by Dunnes, had admitted her mistake but claimed Dunnes Stores had not followed proper procedures during its investigation and her dismissal.
Judge Groarke said Dunnes had a system in place which was specifically constructed to make sure that alcohol was not sold to children which constituted a crime.
“It is extremely important that retailers are seen not to sell alcohol to children,” he said.
Society doesn’t take kindly to shopkeepers who engage in that business and every retailer is entitled to take all reasonable steps to ensure mistakes are not made.
Dunnes Stores had put in place a system that was almost fool proof with notices all over the place to remind staff of their responsibilities and a policy that purchasers of alcohol must be aged 23 or more. Sales screens prompted employees to ensure they had gone through all procedures.
The judge said the eyes of society were on retailers of alcohol who had a very serious obligation to see that the law was applied before a bottle of any sort of spirits crossed the check-out counter.
Judge Groarke said he was satisfied Ms Perenc had known perfectly well what the consequences of selling alcohol to a minor would be and was aware she was in serious trouble when approached by the garda.
The judge accepted her mistake was a “momentary lapse” but he saw nothing unfair about the investigation procedure.
“It is very difficult to see somebody lose their job but Dunne Stores had no option but to do what they did do and I uphold the company’s appeal,” he said. He made no order as to costs.