Wednesday, August 2, 2017

American Airlines’ Can’t Escape Negligent Supervisor Claim

A Pennsylvania federal district court ruled that a claim of negligent supervision should go to trial, finding that it was foreseeable that a male employee who was accused of sexually assaulting a female co-worker off duty might subsequently interact with her during work hours.  

Ms. Brantley, plaintiff, and Darryl Strickland, the alleged assaulter, met while working at American Airlines. Brantley mostly worked at a terminal counter and Strickland often picked up different shifts. On August 21, 2015, Strickland was over at Brantley’s home and sexually assaulted her. She drove herself to the emergency room and called the police that same day. Brantley informed American Airlines of the events. Strickland was subsequently criminally charged for assault and Brantley obtained a protection order against him.

The VP of the airline ordered an investigation of the events that didn’t go further than speaking with Strickland. Brantley and Strickland had two “close call” encounters at work since the protection order was granted, and Brantley’s supervisors were informed of the “close calls.” 

A month after the incident, the employee time clock was malfunctioning and Brantley had to use the one in the break room. Strickland showed up in the same break room while Brantley was still present. He then stared her down, cat-called and whistled at her. He refused to leave, causing her fear and emotional distress. Strickland was then fired after the events were reported to HR. 

The airline asserted that the events that led to the encounter in the break room were not foreseeable. The airline took issue with their ability to foresee an encounter where neither employee “normally worked,” characterizing it as a chance encounter, which it would have otherwise taken steps to prevent. Brantley argued American Airlines knew about the first assault, knew of the order of protection, took steps against encounters in the past, and could have taken steps against another chance encounter. 

The court decided that the airline didn’t impact Brantley’s decision to go to the break room on the day the assault happened, but it could have minimized risk of the chance encounters by avoiding overlap in schedules and informing Brantley of Strickland’s schedule. The court held that a jury could find a chance encounter was foreseeable based on their work location and schedules, and given the liberal policies the airline had on switching shifts. 

The case turned on the notion that the employer knew, or should have known, of the necessity to protect the plaintiff from encountering her assailant during work hours and had the ability to ensure that they were kept apart. This is a tricky situation that hopefully will rarely arise, but egregious allegations such as that which the plaintiff here made against her co-worker, even though occurring off duty, call for extra attention by employers. Added to the problem here was that the plaintiff had an order of protection against her co-worker. These circumstances require an employer to take all necessary steps to ensure that the co-workers avoid any encounters. That would include face to face, email and telephone calls.