Most people just assume that employers can be held legally responsible for the actions of their employees if those actions occur at work. This type of liability is called vicarious liability and it depends on several important factors, including the status of the employee and the facts surrounding the wrongful conduct.
Statutory Indemnification Cases
Under most state statutes, a County employer can be held liable for the acts or omissions of its employee if that act or omission occurred within the scope of employment. That is the issue that was raised in a recent case against Milwaukee County. Much like vicarious liability, the employer can only be held liable if the actions meet a certain threshold.
County Department of Corrections Sued for Rape of Inmate
According to the lawsuit filed by a female inmate of the Milwaukee County Corrections. A corrections officer, Thicklen, was accused of repeatedly having sexual contact with a female inmate. This conduct occurred despite the jail’s zero-tolerance policy which forbids corrections officers from having any form of sexual contact with inmates. In fact, the evidence showed that Thicklen was repeatedly instructed by his employer not to engage in any sexual conduct with inmates, including receiving training.
The 19-year-old pregnant inmate that he raped sued the County and the corrections officer. The inmate based her claim that the County was liable for Thicklen’s actions on the fact that during each sexual assault, Thicklen was on duty, in uniform and armed. Each of the five assaults took place in the jail and Thicklen used his power and authority to perpetuate the assaults.
Jury Awarded the Victim Millions
The case went to trial on the Sec. 1983 claim against Thicklen and a claim for indemnification against the County. After the trial, the jury awarded the rape victim $1.7 million in compensation and $5 million in punitive damages, deciding that the assaults fell within the scope of the corrections officer’s employment.
The Appellate Court Reversed the Verdict
The Seventh Circuit considered the case on appeal and reversed the jury verdict. The court decided that no reasonable jury could find the rapes occurred within in the scope of Thicklen’s employment. The sexual assaults were not the type of conduct that he was employed to perform, nor did they serve any purpose for the County. No reasonable jury could have found that the sexual assaults were merely improper methods of carrying out his employment objectives. Additionally, the victim failed to offer any evidence that the corrections officer’s training was deficient or that he did not adequately understand the training he received.
If you feel you have been the victim of discrimination or retaliation in the workplace, or if you have any other questions regarding your employment rights, please contact the experienced Birmingham employment law attorneys at Wrady Michel & King . You can contact us either online or by calling us at (205) 265-1880. We are here to serve you!