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Thursday, August 14, 2014

Employer Could Be Liable for Employee's Murder of Family

Christopher Coleman was convicted of the murder of his wife and two sons in 2009.  At the time of the murder, Coleman was employed as a security officer for Joyce Meyer Ministries (JMM).  In the months leading up to the murders, he used his work computer to email death threats to himself, his family, and his employer.  His family's estate filed a wrongful death action against JMM, alleging that JMM was negligent in not protecting the decedents from threatened harm.  The complaint also alleged a "negligent retention" claim against JMM.  JMM filed a motion to dismiss arguing that the complaint did not state a cause of action, and the trial court agreed, dismissing the entire complaint.  The estate appealed.  Regions Bank v. Joyce Meyer Ministries, Inc., 2014 IL App (5th) 130193.

With respect to the estate's negligent retention claim, the appellate court agreed with the trial court that it should be dismissed.  Although there are reported cases that recognize that an employer may be held liable for the negligent hiring and retention of an employee who intentionally harms someone while acting outside the scope of employment, the appellate court concluded that the estate's complaint did not contain sufficient facts to support this type of a claim.  

However, with respect to the estate's claim that JMM was negligent in not protecting the decedents, the appellate court held that the complaint did state sufficient facts to move this case forward.  First, the appellate court determined that  JMM had an electronic communications policy that prohibited use of its work computers for harassment or abusive materials, among other prohibited activities.  JMM had the right to monitor and inspect communications sent on its equipment, and JMM had the right to take disciplinary action against violators.  The complaint alleged that JMM knew about Coleman's use of his work computer for emailing the death threats, and actually voluntarily undertook to investigate the source of those threats.  The complaint also alleged that JMM knew that the decedents needed protection from Coleman, yet did not provide that protection when it failed to enforce its electronic communication policy and discipline Coleman for the violations.  The case will now go back to the trial court for a trial on the merits of the surviving negligence claim.

What is troubling about this case is that the appellate court seemed to skip over the "reasonable foreseeability" prong of the duty analysis for a negligence claim.  The trial court had dismissed this count based on that particular prong, finding that JMM could not have "reasonably foreseen" that Coleman would brutally murder his family based on these emails.  This case would seem to require an employer to be much more active in monitoring the use of its computers and other electronic equipment and investigate and act on violations even where those violations are not work-related in any way.  

Post Authored by Julie Tappendorf, Ancel Glink


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