Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Haeger v. Target Corporation – Vicarious Employer Liability & Punitive Damages in Maryland

            Oftentimes, an injured party will rely on a vicarious liability claim and file suit against an employer for the tortious actions of their employee. However, in the case of Sally Haeger v. Target Corp. et al., 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 98942, the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland held that an employer is not vicariously liable for the malicious and intentional acts of an employee, if the employee acted outside the scope of their employment. In granting the Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment, the court held that an employee’s act of pushing a row of shopping carts into an injured party was outside the scope of his employment and unauthorized conduct. The court also held that a Plaintiff may be entitled to punitive damages only by pleading and presenting “clear and convincing evidence of actual malice.”

            The case arises from an incident that occurred at a Target stored located in Baltimore County, Maryland. Sally Haeger (“Haeger”) went to the Target store with her step-father to purchase a birthday gift. Haeger approached a Target employee, later identified as David Howard, Jr. (“Howard”) in the parking lot. Howard was pushing a line of carts when Haeger asked if he could provide her with one. Haeger described Howard’s response to her as “agitated” as he directed her inside of the store for a cart. Haeger further described Howard’s behavior by noting that he made physical gestures with his body, which indicated to her that he did not want to take the time to take the carts he was pushing apart to provide her with one.

            Once Haeger was inside the store attempting to obtain a cart, she alleged Howard pushed the carts into the line of carts in the well. This caused the entire row of carts to move forward and strike Haeger in the back. Haeger alleged that this significant impact caused her to bleed, and resulted in a herniated disc in her back. Howard completed a ‘Team Member Witness Statement’ where he admitted to bumping Haeger’s back when pushing the carts into the cart well. Howard further stated that he asked Haeger if she was “ok,” apologized, and immediately informed the manager on duty.  During a subsequent discussion with a co-worker, Howard stated that the incident was an accident.

            Haeger filed a Complaint in the Circuit Court of Maryland for Baltimore County alleging assault, among other counts, and sought compensatory and punitive damages. Target Corporation (“Target”) filed a motion to have the case removed to federal court, which was granted, moving the case to the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland. Target then filed a Motion for Partial Summary Judgment on the assault and punitive damage claims. Haeger subsequently voluntarily dismissed the assault claim.

            Target’s arguments in support of the Motion for Partial Summary Judgment were twofold: (1) there was insufficient evidence of actual malice on the part of Howard to entitle Haeger to recover punitive damages; and (2) even if the court found that actual malice existed, Target could not be held vicariously liable because Howard’s actions were outside the scope of his employment.

            In concurring with both of Target’s arguments, the court first examined the requirements necessary to obtain a recovery based on a claim of punitive damages. These requirements were previously established in Owens v Illinois, Inc. v. Zenobia, 601 A.2d 633, 657 (Md. 1992), where the court held that to recover punitive damages in Maryland, the plaintiff must establish by “clear and convincing evidence” the basis for the award. The subsequent case of Scott v Jenins, 690 A.2d 1000, 1005 (Md. 1997), further explained this requirement by holding that the evidence supporting punitive damages claims must be subjected to the more stringent clear and convincing standard, in addition to the requirement that the underlying tort need only be proven by a mere preponderance of the evidence standard. In other words, in order to recover punitive damages in any tort action in Maryland, a party must plead “facts sufficient to show actual malice,” which must be proven by clear and convincing evidence. Scott, 690 A.2d at 1003-04.  Actual malice was defined in Henderson Md. Nat’l Bank, 366 A2d.1, at 4 (Md. 1976), as the “performance of an unlawful act, intentionally or wantonly, without legal justification or excuse but with an evil or rancorous motive influenced by hate.”

            Haeger attempted to meet her burden by showing that Howard’s acts were intentional and that they were committed with actual malice by highlighting, among other factors, his inexplicably rude behavior towards her in the parking lot, his visible agitation at her request for a cart moments before striking her in the back with a line of carts, the significance of the impact, and the extent of Haeger’s injuries.  After applying the clear and convincing evidence standard to the facts, the court was not persuaded. It agreed with Target that there was insufficient circumstantial evidence that Howard acted with an “evil or rancorous motive influenced by hate.”  As such, the court held that without establishing this clear and convincing evidence of Howard’s actual malice as defined by Maryland legal authority, Haeger could not recover for punitive damages.

            Turning to the second of Target’s two arguments, the court examined the Plaintiff’s claims that Target was vicariously liable for Howard’s actions.  In Maryland, an employer may be held vicariously liable for “an employee’s tortious acts [if they] were within the scope of his employment.”  Sawyer v. Humphries, 587 A.2d 467, 470 (Md. 1991).  To determine if an employee acted within the scope of his employment, a court “must find that the employee’s actions were in furtherance of the employer’s business and were ‘authorized’ by the employer.” Id.  Moreover, “where an employee’s actions are personal or represent a departure from the purpose of furthering the employer’s business, they are outside the scope of his employment.” Id., at 471.

            The court disagreed with Haeger’s argument that Howard was acting within the scope of his employment because he was moving carts, which is required of him according to his job responsibilities.  Instead, the court agreed with Target’s position that if Howard used the shopping carts to maliciously and intentionally injure Haeger, he was acting outside the scope of his employment.  The court further held that striking and injuring customers in no way furthers Target’s business.  Therefore, even if the Plaintiff could prove by clear and convincing evidence that Howard’s actions were done with actual malice, Target could not be held vicariously liable for those actions because they were outside the scope of his employment.

Article contributed by Tara Barnes

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