Reinstatement of lawsuit vs Home Depot over woman's murder could open door to more employer liability

By Sara McCleary | May 1, 2017

CHICAGO — An appeals court's decision to reverse the dismissal of a lawsuit alleging The Home Depot and one of its flower suppliers should be held responsible the off-site murder of young woman by her male supervisor, could affect future employer liability cases.

“In most circumstances, employers are not liable for criminal behavior engaged in by employees without their knowledge,” Jonathan Crotty, a partner at Charlotte law firm Parker Poe told the Cook County Record. “This general rule is even more applicable in situations where the criminal conduct occurs off-duty. This case recognizes that in some extreme circumstances, employers can be held liable if their hiring and retention of that employee leads to the criminal act.”

In August 2012, Brian Cooper murdered pregnant 21-year-old Alisha Bromfield. Both worked for Grand Flower Growers, which supplied flowers for The Home Depot. Court documents have shown that Cooper, Bromfield’s supervisor, would sexually harass, verbally abuse and intimidate Bromfield. At the time of her murder, Bromfield was attending an out-of-town wedding with Cooper, who had threatened to fire Bromfield if she refused to attend with him. 

Because Bromfield had complained to Home Depot and Grand Flower Growers about Cooper’s actions toward her, and they failed to act, her family sued the companies for Bromfield’s death. U.S. District Judge Jorge Alonso dismissed the case on June 9, 2016, finding that “Illinois courts would not find that the defendants owed Bromfield a duty to protect her from the attack.”

Judges of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, however, disagreed. 

“A reasonable jury could easily find that the employers could and should have foreseen that Cooper would take the small further step to violence,” the appeals judges wrote in their opinion. The case could be headed to trial.

“The concept of negligent retention is not new, but saying that an employer is potentially liable for an off-duty murder of one employee by another is an expansive application of that tort concept,” Crotty said. “The facts involved in this case, including the prior harassment complaints and investigations, may have impacted the court’s decision.”

Though this is an extreme case, it’s possible that by allowing this case to go to trial, the Seventh Circuit judges are opening the door to other more broad applications of the negligent retention tort.

“Employers are people, and people generally believe in second chances," Crotty said. "However, when an employer is faced with knowledge that an employee has engaged in serious illegal behavior, they should review this information in light of the employee’s job responsibilities and whether keeping them employed in that position puts other employees or third parties at risk from repetition of this behavior.

“In many cases, especially those involving serious harassing behavior, the employer may want to carefully consider liability that could result from retaining that person and leaving them in a position where they could again engage in the harassment.”

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Parker Poe The Home Depot U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois

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