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When is Sexual Assault Within the Scope of Employment?

A common question in employment cases that involve injury at the hands of a co-worker or other employee is whether the business can be held liable. The general assumption is that a business would be responsible for the actions of its employees, but that is not always the case. The legal theory referred to as vicarious liability states that an employer can be held liable for the actions of an employee when those actions occur at work or the actions were taken within the scope of employment. An interesting case out of Florida addressed this issue.

Sexual Assault by a Supervisor in an Employer-Furnished Apartment

According to the lawsuit filed in a federal court in Florida, a female worker who was employed seasonally was being housed in employer-furnished housing during her employment. On one occasion, her supervisor entered her apartment that she shared with her children and claimed he needed to conduct an inspection. While in the apartment, the female worker claims he forced her into a bedroom and raped her. She reported the rape to a manager but there was no investigation and no disciplinary action was taken against the supervisor. The supervisor later retaliated against her for making the complaint and she was ultimately terminated.

Did the Sexual Assault Occur Within the Scope of the Supervisors Employment?

There are many factors to consider in determining whether the supervisor’s actions in assaulting the female worker occurred within the scope of his employment. This is a pivotal issue because it would determine whether the company could be held responsible for the supervisor’s actions. Basically, the court had to determine whether the supervisor was able to accomplish the sexual assault by using his authority as a supervisor of the company. Some of the factors considered by the court included the fact that the apartment leased by the female worker was under the control of the employer and the supervisor who allegedly raped her was her supervisor. As a crew leader, his duties also included assigning workers like her to the company-furnished apartments. In other words, he had the authority to enter the premises and perform an inspection. On the date of the alleged assault, the supervisor informed the female worker that he was inspecting the apartment to determine whether there was available space to house additional employees.

Does Vicarious Liability Apply in This Case?

These facts suggest that the supervisor acted within the scope of his employment when the alleged rape occurred. Although in most cases sexual assault is the type of intentional misconduct that would fall outside the scope of employment, there may be an exception when the assault was accomplished by virtue of the employment relationship.

In this case, the jury could decide that the supervisor used his authority given to him by his employer to gain access to the apartment in order to rape her. Unfortunately, there was also evidence that the employer knew of this particular supervisor’s propensity for sexual misconduct as there had been other complaints of sexual harassment occurring at the same housing. For this reason, the federal court allowed the case to go to trial.

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, LLC. You can contact us either online or by calling us at (205) 265-1880. We are here to serve you!