• Key point 10-02.The doctrine of respondeat superior imposes vicarious liability on employers for the negligent acts of their employees committed within the scope of their employment.
• Key point 10-02.3.Churches can be legally responsible on the basis of the respondeat superior doctrine for the actions of their employees only if those actions are committed within the course of employment and further the mission and functions of the church. Intentional and self-serving acts of church employees often will not satisfy this standard.
• Key point 10-05.2.Some courts have found churches not liable on the basis of negligent selection for the sexual misconduct of a minister or other church worker involving another adult since the church exercised reasonable care in the selection of the worker.
• Key point 10-07.A church may exercise reasonable care in selecting ministers or other church workers but still be responsible for their misconduct if it “retained” them after receiving information indicating that they posed a risk of harm to others.
Negligence as a Basis for Liability
* A Minnesota court ruled that a child care center could be sued as a result of the sexual molestation of several children by an adult male teacher. An adult male (“Tom”) was employed by a child care center (“Center A”) as an assistant teacher. He later applied for a position with another child care center (“Center B”). The director of Center B interviewed Tom, and contacted Center A for a reference. A positive reference was provided. State law requires that any licensed child care center conduct a criminal records check on anyone who will have direct contact with children. The purpose of the records check is to determine whether any of the “disqualifying crimes” specified under state law is present. If so, then the person is not permitted to work with children in a licensed program. Center B did not conduct a background check on Tom, as required by law. Had Center B conducted a criminal records check, no disqualifying crimes would have been disclosed.
Tom taught 3 and 4-year-old children at Center B. He worked with another teacher, who asked to be moved to another room because she disagreed with Tom’s teaching methods and believed he was verbally abusive and physically rough with children. The only part of Tom’s classroom that was not easily visible from the next room was the bathroom. Tom later admitted that he sexually abused several children, usually in the bathroom, during nap- time. Parents sued Center B, claiming that it was legally responsible for Tom’s actions on the basis of respondeat superior, negligent hiring, supervision, and retention. A trial court dismissed all claims against Center B, and the parents appealed.
The legal doctrine of respondeat superior imposes liability against employers for the negligent acts of their employees committed in the course of their employment. Employers may be liable for an employee’s intentional acts (such as sexual molestation) only if they are “related to the duties of the employee and occur within work-related limits of time and place,” and are foreseeable. The court concluded that sexual molestation of children in a child care center may be foreseeable, and therefore it was inappropriate for the trial court to dismiss the respondeat superior claim against Center B.
The appeals court noted that a claim of negligent hiring is “predicated on the negligence of an employer in placing a person with known propensities, or propensities which should have been discovered by reasonable investigation in an employment position in which, because of the circumstances of the employment, it should have been foreseeable that the hired individual posed a threat of injury to others.” Liability for negligent hiring “is determined by the totality of the circumstances surrounding the hiring and whether the employer exercised reasonable care.” The appeals court concluded that Center B could not be liable for Tom’s actions on the basis of negligent hiring, because even if it had conducted a criminal records check it would not have learned of any disqualifying crimes. The court acknowledged that seven years before allegations of child molestation had been made about Tom in connection with his application to be a foster parent. Center B was not aware of those allegations, and the court concluded that even if it had sought a criminal records check there was no evidence that “other agencies would have complied with a request for an additional investigation or would have complied with the request in time to have prevented the abuse in this case.”
Negligent retention occurs “when, during the course of employment, the employer becomes aware or should have become aware of problems with an employee that indicated his unfitness, and the employer fails to take further action such as investigating, discharge or reassignment.” The court conceded that a few parents had made complaints about Tom’s teaching, but none of these complaints suggested that Tom was sexually abusing children. Since there was no evidence that Center B was aware or should have been aware that Tom was sexually abusing children, the trial court correctly dismissed the negligent retention claim.
Negligent supervision is derived “from the doctrine of respondeat superior” and, therefore, in order to prove negligent supervision, a plaintiff must show “that the employee’s actions occurred within the scope of employment.” The trial court dismissed the plaintiff’s negligent supervision claim based on its conclusion that “sexual misconduct is not a foreseeable risk arising out of the duties of a day-care provider.” The appeals court noted, however, that because the respondeat superior claim should not have been dismissed, the same was true of the negligent supervision claim.
Application. The most important aspect of this case was the court’s conclusion that a child care center may be responsible, on the basis of respondeat superior, for the molestation of children by a teacher. The legal doctrine of respondeat superior imposes liability on an employer for the acts of its employees regardless of the amount of care it exercised. It is a “strict liability” principle. All that is required is that a plaintiff prove that acts of sexual molestation by teachers in child care centers is “foreseeable.” So long as a court accepts the proposition that such incidents are foreseeable, then child care providers become absolutely liable for any incident of molestation, regardless of the steps they have taken to screen and supervise workers. Rulings such as this, by imposing absolute liability on child care providers, do not make screening and supervision unnecessary. To the contrary, they make screening and supervision even more important. L.M. v. Karlson, 646 N.W.2d 537 (Minn. App. 2002).
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