The U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals has permitted a lawsuit against Home Depot to move forward where the plaintiff alleges that Home Depot’s negligence resulted in one of its supervisors raping and murdering her daughter. The plaintiff’s daughter, Alisha Bromfield, worked in the gardening section of a Home Depot store in Illinois. The supervisor, Brian Cooper, served as the regional manager responsible for the store where Bromfield worked. According to the court, Cooper’s escalating harassment “included verbally abusing [Bromfield] while throwing things, controlling and monitoring her both during and outside her work hours, and requiring her to come with him on business trips. After five years of that treatment, he used his supervisory authority to require Alisha to come on a personal trip with him—to an out-of-state family wedding—by threatening to fire her or cut her hours if she refused. She went. After the wedding, he killed and raped her.”
Bromfield’s mother has alleged that Home Depot and two other companies that jointly employed Cooper, negligently supervised him and are, thus, responsible for Cooper’s rape and murder of Bromfield. Cooper allegedly had a history of sexually harassing younger subordinates like Bromfield. For example, before he turned his attention to Bromfield, he allegedly fixated on a different younger subordinate named Jessica. He allegedly made comments to Jessica about his genitals, rubbed his genitals against her, and forced her to take a road trip alone with him while he talked about his genitals. Prior to Bromfield’s rape and murder, Bromfield and Jessica allegedly both complained to management but not enough was done to stop Cooper, basically just giving him slaps on the wrists.
There is little doubt that Home Depot could be liable for Cooper’s actions under civil rights statutes that prohibit sexual harassment. His actions constitute some of the most extreme sexual harassment anyone could commit. The issue before the Seventh Circuit, however, was whether Home Depot could also be held liable under Illinois common law for negligent supervision. Unlike civil rights statutes, common law claims do not have any caps on damages. If Bromfield’s mother could only sue under, for instance, the federal law that prohibits sexual harassment, Home Depot’s liability would be capped at $300,000. If it found Home Depot and Cooper’s other employers liable for Cooper’s rape and murder of Bromfield, a jury would likely award Bromfield’s mother far more than $300,000 for the loss of her daughter, who was a young woman in her 20’s.
If this case had occurred in Maine, it is unlikely that Bromfield’s mother could pursue a common law claim against Home Depot. In Maine, employees cannot bring common law claims against their employers for injuries that they sustain in the workplace. Maine’s workers compensation laws preempt common law claims against employers even when the employer intentionally harms the employee. Moreover, unlike in Illinois, Maine state courts have never recognized a tort for negligent supervision. As a result, if Maine law applied to Bromfield’s case and Bromfield’s mother prevailed in her lawsuit, Home Depot would likely escape full responsibility for the rape and murder of Bromfield because of caps on monetary damages.