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A federal appeals court said that Home Depot must face trial for a supervisor's off-duty murder of a company employee.
The U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals said employers are responsible for workers who tortiously abuse their supervisory authority -- even when it occurs away from work. The appellate panel said it is the same as when a worker drives a company car.
"Both entrustment with a chattel and entrustment with supervisory authority set employees apart from the general public," Judge David Hamilton wrote in Anicich v. Home Depot. "In both situations, employers have the ability and incentive to consider and monitor the employees whom they are trusting and how that trust is used."
The case arose in 2012 from the murder and rape of Alisha Bromfield by her supervisor Brian Cooper, who is serving two life terms for the crimes. Cooper strangled Bromfield in a hotel room, then raped her corpse. Bromfield was seven months pregnant at the time, and her unborn child died in the assault.
Cooper, who was a regional manager, had been Bromfield's supervisor for about five years. During that time, he became increasingly controlling of her time. He started texting her after work, pressuring her to spend time with him alone and calling her his girlfriend.
When she resisted his advances, he got angry. He yelled at her at work, calling her names like "bitch," "slut," and "whore" in front of customers. His outbursts included throwing and slamming things.
Home Depot's senior management knew about Cooper's behavior, and a human resources manager ordered him to take anger management classes. He did not complete the course and remained Bromfield's supervisor until her death.
In the last months of her life, Cooper pressured Bromfield to go with him to his sister's wedding. He threatened to fire her if she refused, so she acquiesced. After the wedding, Cooper took her to a hotel room and killed her.
Bromfield's mother sued Home Depot and Grand Flower Grocers, which managed garden centers for Home Depot, but a trial judge concluded they had no duty to control their supervisor after hours. On appeal, the Seventh Circuit reversed the summary judgment and remanded the case to the trial court.
"Illinois law permits recovery from employers whose negligent hiring, supervision, or retention of their employees causes injury," the appeals court said, including known harassers.
The panel said Cooper did not kill Bromfield on company premises or use company chattels. "But he used something else the defendants gave him," the court said: "supervisory authority."
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