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Negligent Hiring Practices Not Enough to Impose Liability on Employer for Employee's Criminal Assault

In Ledet v. Mills Vans Lines, et al., the Appeals Court, in affirming a Superior Court’s summary judgement decision, declined to find an employer liable for an employee’s criminal assault because there was no evidence that the employer’s negligent hiring was the proximate cause of the attack.

The defendant hired Robert Koonz in June 2011 as a “helper” without conducting a background check or drug screen. Koonz had an extensive criminal history, including convictions for inciting violence and threatening domestic violence. Koonz also did not have a driver’s license due to various motor vehicle-related convictions. Additionally, Koonz admitted to abusing drugs and alcohol at the time. Mills did not conduct background checks on its helpers despite a written agency agreement with an international motor carrier that required it to do so.

In August 2011, Koonz traveled to Massachusetts in a U-Haul truck rented by Mills in preparation of moving a customer. In the early morning hours of August 27, 2011, Koonz violently assaulted the plaintiff in Quincy, MA, after following her in the rented truck while the plaintiff walked home from work. Koonz was arrested less than a quarter of a mile from the crime scene, where the rental truck was found with its doors unlocked, windows open, and the keys on the driver’s seat. Koonz subsequently pleaded guilty and was sentenced to prison. A background check performed by Mills after the attack found that Koonz did not meet company standards.

The plaintiff and her husband sued Mills for negligent hiring, retention and supervision, and loss of consortium. A superior court judge allowed Mills’ motion for summary judgment. In affirming the lower court’s ruling, the Appeals Court found that the negligence was too attenuated from the harms suffered by plaintiff to form a basis of liability. The Court found that Mills was clearly negligent at the time it rehired Koonz. However, the Court held that Mills’s negligence was too far removed from the actual act in order to establish Mills’s liability. The attack did not occur while Koonz was engaged in work for Mills or the attack was against a person with whom Mills held a relationship with (commercial or otherwise). Without that connection, Koonz’s criminal acts were not a sufficiently foreseeable result of Mills’s hiring of him or the decision to allow him to drive the rental truck.

Additionally, the Appeals Court found that Mills did not have a duty to the plaintiff based on an attenuated connection between the rental van and the potentials harms caused by its use. While the rental truck was the means by which Koonz traveled to Massachusetts, Koonz abandoned the truck prior to the attack. As such, the van’s role was too far attenuated to the attack in order to establish liability.

The dissent, most notably, found that the majority overlooked the Restatement of Torts that acknowledges that an employer may owe a duty of reasonable care to a plaintiff “when the employment facilitates the employee’s causing harm to third parties” and that Mills’s employment facilitated the harm to the plaintiffs. The dissent also disagreed that the acts committed by Koonz were not foreseeable by Mills’s failure to inquire about Koonz’s criminal history.

This matter is likely to be subject to further appellate review. Nonetheless, it highlights the struggle courts have with limiting an employer’s liability to third parties as a result of their employee’s egregious conduct. It also underscores the importance of employers following written policies and procedures, both with hiring and supervising employees.

Please do not hesitate to contact Melick & Porter's Employment Practices Group with any employment-related inquiry.