November 24, 2009

Kentucky Court Upholds Award of Punitive Damages to Supervisor Who Authorized Sexual Assault

You don't see this every day; a court concludes that a supervisor engaged in improper conduct towards an employee, and permits an award of punitive damages to both the employee and the supervisor.

In this published opinion, the Kentucky Court of Appeals affirmed an award of $1.1 million in compensatory damages and $5 million in punitive damages to a McDonald's employee who was subjected to an improper strip search and a sexual assault. While those numbers may seem high, it isn't completely surprising that McDonald's ends up being liable for a sexual assault authorized by a supervisor.

But here's where it gets weird. The supervisor also recovered $100,000 in compensatory damages and $400,000 in punitive damages (reduced from the $1 million awarded by the trial court). The supervisor claimed she was tricked by a prank caller into ordering the strip search. According to the supervisor, the prank caller said he was a police officer and asked the supervisor to call her boyfriend (who did not work for McDonald's), and bring him into the store to conduct a body cavity search of the employee. Apparently, that seemed like a reasonable request to her, so she complied. The supervisor's boyfriend then came to the store and sexually assaulted the employee. When McDonald's corporate management learned of the incident, they fired the supervisor. She then sued McDonald's for intentional infliction of emotional distress.

The Court of Appeals ruled that McDonald's was liable to both the employee and the supervisor because McDonald’s corporate management knew that a prank caller was contacting its stores, pretending to be a police officer and convincing the store managers to conduct strip searches, but McDonald’s made a conscious decision not to train or warn their store managers or employees about the calls. Accordingly, McDonald's must pay half a million dollars to the supervisor who was "duped" into asking her boyfriend to perform a body cavity search on an employee.

Hat tip: ABA Journal