Employers may be subject to punitive damages in a negligent hiring case despite a lack of actual knowledge of an employee's particular unfitness.

The case is Doe v. Catholic Bishop of Chicago, 2017 IL App (1st) 162388.

Facts

The Doe plaintiff's claim included a negligent employment claim against the employer stemming from allegations that a priest sexually molested him when he was in the third grade. The trial court granted plaintiff leave to amend his complaint to add a claim for punitive damages. The punitive damages claim alleged that the employer "consciously disregarded the known risk the priest posed to its parishioners."

To support his claim for punitive damages, the plaintiff claimed the defendant employer: 1) knew some of its priests were involved in a sexual misconduct scandal involving minors, 2) ignored record keeping policies adopted in response to the scandal, 3) knew of the specific priest's misconduct in the past and failed to investigate it, 4) failed to investigate the priest's misconduct after he was ordained, and 5) failed to report suspicious incidents involving the priest to DCFS.

Trial Court Ruling

The trial court granted the plaintiff leave to amend his complaint and add a claim for punitive damages. It rejected the defendant employer's argument that it must have had actual knowledge of the priest's particular unfitness. Instead, it held that the proper standard was "whether the plaintiff presented sufficient facts to allow a jury to reasonably find that the defendant showed an utter indifference to the rights and safety of others in ordaining" the priest. The defendant employer's motion to reconsider was denied, so it appealed.

Appellate Court's Decision

The employer defendant argued that the plaintiff could only satisfy the conscious disregard or willful and wanton conduct standard that allows for punitive damages by showing that it knew of the priest's proclivity to sexually abuse children.

The appellate court disagreed. It noted that the same set of facts can serve as the basis for a negligence claim and also for an award of punitive damages. The court said it is for a jury to decide to what level the conduct rose after hearing the evidence. The appellate court refused to interfere with the jury's role in answering that question of fact and held that the trial court used the appropriate standard in allowing the plaintiff's claim for punitive damages.

The Takeaway

Employers should be aware that any argument seeking to prohibit a request for punitive damages in a negligent hiring/supervision/retention claim premised on the fact that it did not have actual knowledge of a its employee's particular unfitness will fail.