Wrongful death suit dismissed vs Home Depot, Grand Flowers over murder of young pregnant woman by abusive supervisor

Jonathan Bilyk Jun. 10, 2015, 4:47pm

The family of a murdered young pregnant woman and her viable unborn child, who also died when her abusive supervisor strangled the woman to death while they attended an out-of-town wedding together, will not be allowed to sue Home Depot and a company that supplies flowers and plants to the retailer for its garden centers, for whom the woman and her killer worked, after a federal judge determined the companies owed no duty to foresee the attack that claimed her life.

U.S. District Judge Jorge Alonso on June 9 dismissed the wrongful death complaint brought by the administrator of the estate of Alisha Bromfield and of Bromfield’s unborn daughter, Ava Lucille, against Home Depot and Grand Flower Growers Inc., over Bromfield's murder at the hands of Brian Cooper.

“The court’s research has not revealed, nor has plaintiff cited, any Illinois authority that recognizes an employer’s duty in circumstances like those presented here or even remotely similar circumstances,” Alonso wrote in his opinion granting the motions by Home Depot and Grand to dismiss the complaint. “Cooper’s attack on Bromfield and her unborn child was brutal and heinous, but the Court believes that based on what is alleged in the complaint, Illinois courts would not find that the defendants owed Bromfield a duty to protect her from the attack.

“When no duty is owed, there can be no liability for negligence as a matter of law.”

The ruling comes about 10 months since Bromfield’s family brought the action in Cook County Circuit Court, and a little less than three years since Bromfield was killed by Cooper following a wedding in Door County, Wis.

The matter was removed to federal court jurisdiction by Grand.

According to court documents, Bromfield first encountered Cooper while she worked for Grand, a Wayland, Mich.-based company which grows plants and then provides personnel to distribute, display and sell the plants at the garden centers of Home Depot stores in the region.

According to the court documents, Bromfield worked seasonally for Grand at Home Depot garden centers in the suburban Chicago communities of Bolingbrook, Shorewood and Joliet providing “merchandising and garden services” at the stores.

Cooper eventually became her supervisor, serving as regional manager, “responsible for Grand’s business operations and employees at Home Depot stores throughout northern Illinois.”

Bromfield’s family alleges Cooper’s promotion came despite Grand and Home Depot’s knowledge of Cooper’s alleged “psychological issues and dangerous propensities,” which made him “emotionally unstable and violent.”

The judge’s decision notes Cooper was ordered to attend anger management therapy, “which he failed to satisfactorily complete.” Yet he was allowed to remain a supervisor.

According to the court documents, Cooper demanded Bromfield, then still a minor, accompany him on business trips, “where he engaged in abusive and inappropriate conduct with her,” and he “publically decried her as a ‘whore’ and ‘slut,’ and “suggested to Bromfield that they have an ‘intimate relationship.’”

Bromfield’s family alleged she repeatedly complained of Cooper’s behavior to management. Yet, the company not only permitted Cooper to remain in his position, but certain “unidentified persons in Grand’s management to whom Bromfield complained ‘actually cooperated with Cooper in arranging for [him] to be alone’ with Bromfield ‘ to facilitate his continuing pattern of abuse.’”

In 2012, the court documents state Cooper, who had allegedly grown angry with Bromfield for attending college and other personal decisions she had made with which he disagreed, pressured her to attend Cooper’s sister’s wedding in Door County to “consummate his relationship” with the young woman.

At the time, Bromfield was seven months pregnant. Court documents did not identify the father of the unborn child.

Following the wedding, court documents state Cooper attempted to intimidate Bromfield into entering “into a permanent relationship.” When she declined, he then threatened her.

“Then, as Bromfield begged for her life and that of her unborn child, Cooper strangled Bromfield for five minutes or more until she was dead, and thereafter, undressed her and raped her corpse,” the court documents state.

The family’s complaint alleged Grand and Home Depot should have been aware of Cooper’s predilections and behavior and had a duty to intervene to remove a supervisor who would “intimidate and terrorize young girls.”

They asserted by refusing to remove Cooper as Bromfield’s supervisor, the employers “created a reasonably foreseeable risk of danger to the public and (Bromfield)” and allowed Cooper to get close enough to murder Bromfield.

In reply, however, Home Depot and Grand said Cooper had never physically attacked Bromfield before the murder, and there was no way for the employers to know “Bromfield’s murder was likely to occur.”

The judge, while noting the events surrounding the case are “tragic,” agreed with Home Depot and Grand’s contention.

“Even if it can be inferred that the alleged sexual harassment was still going on in 2012, the complaint contains few specifics about what Cooper did that year that would have led anyone, let alone defendants, to have reasonably foreseen that he was going to attack Bromfield in August,” Alonso wrote.

He noted Cooper is alleged to have expressed anger about “Bromfield’s attending college and her personal life.” But he said the complaint doesn’t specify what he said or to whom, or how those remarks could have led the employers, if they had known of them, to have discerned Cooper’s intent to murder Bromfield.

“This was not an instance of workplace violence, and plaintiffs fail to identify the ‘obvious action’ or ‘reasonable measures’ that defendants (Home Depot and Grand) should have taken to prevent such an attack that occurred without warning far from the workplace,” the judge said. “Defendants are unable to control their employees’ social activities outside of work that occur off the premises.

“The court agrees with Home Depot that imposing a duty on defendants under the circumstances would have unreasonable consquences.”

Alonso dismissed the case without prejudice, but allowed Bromfield’s family until June 30 to amend their original complaint to address his concerns.

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