Is spilling coffee on a laptop considered gross negligence?

UPDATED: Oct 1, 2022

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Is spilling coffee on a laptop considered gross negligence?

My employer issued a laptop to me and I spilled coffee on it. It happened at work, during normal working hours while executing of work-related duties. My employer withheld pay to replace it. No consent for this was signed by me and nothing in my contract makes me liable for damages. Quick research says employers can seek reimbursement if the act was deliberate or gross negligence. It certainly wasn’t deliberate. Was it gross negligence?

Isn’t the employer required to get signed consent from me to withhold pay?

Do I have a case in small claims court to get my pay back? State is Georgia.

Asked on April 30, 2018 under Employment Labor Law, Georgia


SJZ, Member, New York Bar / FreeAdvice Contributing Attorney

Answered 4 years ago | Contributor

No, spilling coffee is not "gross negligence," which goes beyond ordinary carelessness. Spilling coffee on a laptop is only ordinary or everyday carelessness.
However, you are incorrect in that *anytime* you damage or destroy another's property through negligence, or carelessness, even ordinary carelessness, you can be held liable for the cost to repair or value of what you damaged or destroyed. The employer cannot simply withhold or deduct your pay unless you consented to the deduction, whether specifically for this case or as a general policy for damage. Instead, they were supposed to sue you for the money, like any person would sue someone who damaged their laptop.
However, even though they should not have withheld pay, as a practical matter, there may be little you can do: if you sue for the money back, they could countersue or counterclaim in that case for the damage to their laptop, or even just interpose the damage you did and costs you caused them to incur as a "set-off" (or credit) against anything they owe you. If they took out an amount equal to or less than the laptop cost, it would net out against what they owe in terms of wages, assuming they can prove you were careless to spill the coffee and the coffee required replacement of the laptop; therefore, if you did damage or destroy their laptop, if you sued for the money they took out but they raised the issue of the laptop in return, you'd likely net out to more-or-less the same place. It may not be worthwhile trying to get the money back, since you may not come out ahead.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The Answer(s) provided above are for general information only. The attorney providing the answer was not serving as the attorney for the person submitting the question or in any attorney-client relationship with such person. Laws may vary from state to state, and sometimes change. Tiny variations in the facts, or a fact not set forth in a question, often can change a legal outcome or an attorney's conclusion. Although has verified the attorney was admitted to practice law in at least one jurisdiction, he or she may not be authorized to practice law in the jurisdiction referred to in the question, nor is he or she necessarily experienced in the area of the law involved. Unlike the information in the Answer(s) above, upon which you should NOT rely, for personal advice you can rely upon we suggest you retain an attorney to represent you.

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