March 24 (Reuters) - A federal appeals court on Friday said Home Depot Inc must face a lawsuit claiming that the retailer’s negligence led to a supervisor’s murdering a pregnant employee by strangulation and raping her corpse.
Reversing a lower court ruling, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago said Alisha Bromfield’s mother may pursue claims that Home Depot should not have employed the supervisor, given his known history of sexually harassing, verbally abusing and physically intimidating female subordinates.
Home Depot spokesman Stephen Holmes said the Atlanta-based company is reviewing the decision. “Our deepest sympathies remain with the family, first and foremost,” he said.
“We are very pleased with the reversal,” Kristin Barnette, the lawyer for Bromfield’s mother, Sherry Anicich, said in an interview.
Bromfield, 21, was seven months pregnant in August 2012 when she was killed by Brian Cooper, for whom she had worked in Home Depot stores in Illinois since 2006, court papers show.
Her unborn baby did not survive. Cooper was later convicted of intentional homicide and sentenced to two consecutive life terms in prison without parole.
The complaint said Bromfield had repeatedly complained to management about how Cooper treated women, including calling her a “slut” and “whore” in front of customers.
Cooper eventually forced Bromfield to attend his sister’s wedding in Wisconsin or risk being fired, and killed her after she refused to enter a relationship, the complaint said.
Last March, a lower court judge said Bromfield’s mother failed to plausibly allege that Home Depot had a duty to protect her from Cooper’s criminal conduct, justifying damages.
But the appeals court said a reasonable jury could find that Home Depot and Grand Flower Growers, which the mother said jointly employed Cooper, should have foreseen he might “take the small further step” to violence.
“Alisha’s story is an old story that has been told too many times,” Circuit Judge David Hamilton wrote. “Its ending is both shocking and predictable. Alisha’s family is entitled to try to prove its truth.”
Grand Flower’s lawyers did not respond to requests for comment.
Hamilton also criticized Home Depot’s argument that it would be “illogical and unworkable” to fire or demote workers because of their “usage of inappropriate language, or sexual misconduct,” to prevent a “future (hypothetical) murder.”
“Home Depot asserts in its brief that it employs ‘thousands’ of such people,” Hamilton wrote in a footnote. “We hope this insult to the character of Home Depot’s employees and to the judgment of its managers was just an ill-advised exaggeration.”
The case is Anicich v Home Depot USA Inc et al, 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 16-1693. (Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Richard Chang)