A verdict that was appealed and overturned twice before ultimately being reinstated by the North Carolina Supreme Court has resulted in the clarification of case law regarding negligent hiring, supervision or retention.
From 2012 to 2016, Thomas and Teresa Keith, an an elderly couple, hired a home health care agency, Health-Pro Home Care Services Inc. to help them manage their declining health.
In 2015, Health-Pro assigned a new aide, Deitra Clark, to the Keiths.
Shortly after, the Keiths began noticing money missing from their house. In August 2016, after reporting this, Health-Pro determined that Clark, as well as one other aide, were suspects.
The Keiths would eventually file a lawsuit against Health-Pro.
According to the Keith’s counsel, Jeremy Wilson (Christopher Edwards and Alex Dale served as co-counsel), Clark was dishonest about her background and Health-Pro failed to perform proper inspection before hiring her. On her Health-Pro application, Clark certified that she had never been convicted of, or pled guilty, to a crime.
At trial the Keith’s son testified to telling Health-Pro not to send Clark back into the home, and that Health-Pro agreed not to. It also agreed to continue to “investigate everything” regarding the missing money.
According to Wilson, Health-Pro took no further action in investigating this, and two weeks later placed Clark back in the Keith’s home. The Keiths assumed that if Clark was back to their home, Health-Pro must have completed its investigation and determined she was not a threat.
At trial, Health-Pro disputed many of these allegations and contested numerous issues of fact.
Shortly after Clark was placed back in the home, she used the knowledge that she had gained while working with the Keiths to orchestrate a home invasion and armed robbery in September 2016.
Clark eventually pleaded guilty to first-degree burglary and second-degree kidnapping.
According to Wilson, after that night, life became very different for the Keiths. The feeling of safety and security in their home was gone, and they were both diagnosed with PTSD.
The Keith’s filed a lawsuit against Health-Pro in December 2016, alleging that Health-Pro had been negligent in assigning Clark to their home, in failing to identify the warning signs associated with her conduct, in placing her back in the home despite stating that they would not do so, and in failing to conduct proper investigation of the initial theft.
The Keiths presented their case as one for “ordinary negligence” and did not make a specific claim for “negligent hiring, supervision, or retention.” A jury trial was held in April 2018, and the jury awarded a $750,000 verdict to the Keith’s.
Health-Pro appealed, arguing, in part, that North Carolina law did not allow a company to be held responsible for intentional acts of its employees, particularly when this type of conduct occurs “off the clock.” Arguing that the home invasion and robbery were not foreseeable harms, and that the Keith’s claim should be negligent hiring, supervision, or retention rather than ordinary negligence.
The Court of Appeals agreed and overturned the jury’s verdict largely based on the interpretation of Little v. Omega Meats Supreme Court Opinion.
The Keith’s appealed to the North Carolina Supreme Court. The Supreme Court overturned the Court of Appeals and reinstated the jury’s verdict. The Supreme Court concluded that the Keiths had presented a claim for negligent hiring, supervision, or retention, and, while these claims do have additional requirements under North Carolina law, the Keith’s presented sufficient evidence to reach the jury.
The Supreme Court found that the Court of Appeals had erred in applying an overly restrictive interpretation of Little v. Omega Meats. The Supreme Court concluded that the jury verdict should be reinstated. In its opinion, the Supreme Court clarified case law concerning what evidence must exist to establish a valid claim for negligent hiring, supervision, or retention. With interest, the Keith’s jury verdict totaled at over $1 million.
The Supreme court clarified case law and the required standard, including that an employer may owe a duty of care to a victim of an employee’s intentional conduct, “when there is a nexus between the employment relationship and the injury.”
While the Supreme Court opinion doesn’t expand on employer liability, it clarifies this area of the law, which is vital for the legal community, employers, and members of the public.