An elderly couple who survived a home invasion robbery conspired by an employee of a home health care company he hired to care for them is entitled to the $750,000 a jury awarded them due to the company’s negligent hiring, the North Carolina Supreme court ruled.
In a 5-0 decision on Friday, the High Court overturned a North Carolina Court of Appeals panel that ruled – also in a split decision – that Thomas and Teresa Keith did not bear the ‘increased burden’ to prove a claim of negligent employment. .
The Supreme Court said the appeal panel misinterpreted previous case law and set the bar too high.
In an opinion written by Judge Tamara Barranger, the court said that “a person of ordinary prudence could have reasonably foreseen that due to the negligent hiring of Health-Pro, home invasion and home robbery of Keith or a similar detrimental outcome were likely and that the trauma of such an event would hurt the Keiths.
Wilmington, North Carolina attorney Jeremy M. Wilson, who represented the Keiths, said the court’s opinion did not significantly expand North Carolina’s negligent hiring law, ” it simply clarifies the evidence that must be presented to prove a claim of negligent hiring”.
The Keiths hired Health-Pro in 2012 to provide them with home care after Thomas had heart surgery. He and Teresa are both elderly and have mobility issues, according to the opinion.
Health-Pro owner Sylvester Bailey III told the Keiths and their son, Fred, that all employees undergo criminal background checks. The company’s website says it has vetted all employees.
North Carolina law also requires employees of home care companies who enter clients’ homes to submit to a background check by the state’s Bureau of Investigation or other approved entity.
The company later admitted that it failed to complete the required background check when it hired Deitra Ann Clark in September 2015. A thorough check reportedly revealed that she had been convicted of driving with a driver’s license. driver revoked in 2008, charged with possession of marijuana. and drug paraphernalia in 2009 and 2010, charged with communicating threats in 2010 and 2011, and convicted of criminal contempt in 2010.
Clark said in her job application that she had never been convicted or pleaded guilty to any crime. She also lied about having a valid driver’s license.
And it turned out that she was also a criminal.
In 2016, family members discovered that Keith’s house was missing $900 in rolled coins and $1,260 in cash. Health-Pro promised not to assign Clark home in the future, but fired her a few weeks later.
On September 28, 2016, Clark drove two accomplices to Keith’s home. The accomplices used a hidden spare key to enter the house and entered the den, where Mr Keith was watching a movie. They unplugged the phone and took a .32 caliber pistol from Mr. Keith’s bedside table. They also took his ATM card from a desk drawer and stole two boxes of rolled coins totaling $500.
The two criminals forced Mr. Keith at gunpoint to lead them to an ATM and forced him to withdraw $1,000. They told Mr. Keith to drive them to a nearby elementary school, got out of the car and drove away with the stolen money, coins and gun.
Health-Pro fired Clark after police identified her in a photo taken at a nearby Coinstar machine, where she was converting coin rolls into cash.
The Keiths filed a lawsuit in Pitt County Superior Court. A jury found that Health-Pro was negligent in hiring Clark without a thorough background check and awarded $500,000 to Mr. Keith and $250,000 to his wife.
Health-Pro appealed and persuaded a panel of the Court of Appeal to overturn the jury’s verdict. The appeals court ruling said a 2005 decision in Little v. Omega Meats I Inc. held that a plaintiff must prove all three elements to substantiate a negligent employment claim against an employer for actions that took place outside the scope of employment:
- Both the employee and the plaintiff must have been in places each had a right to be when the wrongdoing occurred.
- The plaintiff must have met the employee, when the wrongful act occurred, as a direct result of the employment.
- The employer must have derived some benefit, even if only potential or indirect, from the encounter between the employee and the plaintiff that resulted in the plaintiff’s injury.
The Supreme Court said the appeal panel erred in insisting on proof of “such rigid requirements”. The court said the factors set out in Little are relevant to determining whether an employer owed a duty of care to a plaintiff, which must be proven in support of a claim of negligent employment, but the decision did not require that each of the three elements be tested.
Justice Philip Berger Jr. dissented with the majority opinion and Chief Justice Paul Newby dissented in part. Berger said in a dissenting opinion that nothing in the information available about Clark would have made Health-Pro aware that she was a violent person who would engage in home invasion and armed robbery.
“Furthermore, at the time of the theft, Defendant had no capacity or authority to exercise supervision or control over Clark’s actions,” Berger wrote.
North Carolina Department of Corrections records show Clark was convicted of first-degree burglary and second-degree kidnapping. She is currently serving a 10-year, 11-month sentence at the North Carolina Women’s Correctional Facility in Raleigh.
Want to stay up to date?
Receive the latest insurance news
sent straight to your inbox.