Jury to decide if Home Depot, flower seller should pay for woman's murder by supervisor: Appeals panel

By Dan Churney | Mar 31, 2017

A U.S. appeals panel in Chicago has reversed a federal district judge’s dismissal of a wrongful death lawsuit against Home Depot and a flower wholesaler, saying the companies could be blamed for failing to deter a supervisor from tormenting and eventually murdering a young woman with whom he worked.

The March 24 decision was rendered by Chief Judge Diane Wood and Judges Illana Rovner and David Hamilton, of the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. The ruling favored the family of Alisha Bromfield, reversing the dismissal of their suit against Home Depot and Grand Flower Growers. 

Home Depot is a nationwide chain of home improvement stores, based in Cobb County, Ga. Grand Flower Growers, based in Wayland, Mich., cultivates plants and provides personnel to distribute, display and sell the plants at Home Depot garden centers. 

Bromfield worked seasonally for Grand Flower at Home Depot stores in Bolingbrook, Shorewood and Joliet. Brian Cooper was Bromfield’s supervisor, with Cooper and Bromfield jointly employed by Grand Flower and Home Depot. 

In the course of six years, Cooper sexually harassed, verbally abused and physically intimidated Bromfield, sometimes in front of customers, according to court papers. Cooper also demanded Bromfield, who during part of this time was a minor, accompany him on business trips. 

In August 2012, Cooper pressured Bromfield to attend his sister’s wedding in Door County, Wis., to “consummate his relationship” with Bromfield, according to the suit. If she refused, Cooper said he would fire her or cut her work hours. At the time, Bromfield was seven‑months pregnant, but the father of her unborn child is not identified in court documents. 

During this trip, Cooper tried to intimidate Bromfield into entering “into a permanent relationship," the suit said. When she refused, he strangled her to death, then raped her corpse. The now 40‑year‑old Cooper is serving a life sentence in a Wisconsin prison. 

Bromfield's family sued Home Depot and Grand Flower in U.S. District Court for Northern Illinois, alleging the companies were aware of Cooper's "psychological issues and dangerous propensities" and that he was "unstable and violent," but did little to head him off. Cooper was ordered to attend anger management therapy, but did not complete the program. However, Cooper remained a supervisor.

Bromfield’s family alleged the woman repeatedly complained of Cooper’s conduct to management, but to no avail. The family alleged the companies had a duty to remove Cooper, and their failure to do so “created a reasonably foreseeable risk of danger to the public and (Bromfield)." 

Home Depot and Grand Flower countered Cooper had never physically attacked Bromfield before the murder, and there was no way for them to suspect murder was in the making. Defendants said they owed no duty to Bromfield. U.S. District Judge Jorge Alonso agreed with defendants, granting their motion to dismiss the suit. 

On appeal, Seventh Circuit Judge Hamilton said Alonso was wrong, noting the U.S. Civil Rights Act and the Illinois Human Rights Act make employers liable for the type of behavior engaged in by Cooper. 

Hamilton further said that even though defendants claimed they could not predict the murder, that doesn't mean they couldn't see Cooper was likely to commit violence of some sort, as his rabid behavior clearly indicated he was capable of shedding blood. 

"A reasonable jury could easily find that the employers could and should have foreseen that Cooper would take the small further step to violence," Hamilton said. 

Increasing the defendants’ liability, in Hamilton’s view, was Cooper used his supervisory position with the company to coerce Bromfield into accompanying him on the fateful trip to Wisconsin. If defendants had not retained Cooper in management, Cooper would not have had the power to force Bromfield into going with him. 

Hamilton concluded the case should be reinstated and go before a jury. 

"Every life lost to brutality is unique, each family's hell a private one. We do not diminish that truth when we repeat that Alisha's story is an old story that has been told too many times. Its ending is both shocking and predictable. Alisha's family is entitled to try to prove its truth," the judge observed. 

Bromfield’s family has been represented by the Chicago firms of Kralovec, Jambois & Schwartz and Meltzer, Purtill & Stelle. 

Home Depot has been defended by the Chicago firm of McVey & Parsky. 

Busse, Busse & Grasse, of Chicago has defended Grand Flower Growers.

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Organizations in this Story

Kralovec, Jambois and Schwartz Meltzer, Purtill & Stelle LLC U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois

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