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
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
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
Busse, Busse & Grasse, of Chicago has defended Grand