Brief Fact Summary.
Plaintiff sued Defendants, employer and employee, for assault and battery and for intentional infliction of emotional distress. A jury found employee liable for assault and battery, but not liable for intentional infliction of emotional distress and found employer liable for intentional infliction of emotional distress, but not liable for assault and battery. Employer appealed. The court of appeals reversed and held since employee, as an agent of employer, could be found not guilty of intentional infliction of emotional distress, then employer, as principal, could not be found guilty. The Arizona Supreme Court granted review of the case.
Synopsis of Rule of Law.
An employer may be independently liable for intentional infliction of emotional distress against an employee.
Leta Fay Ford (Plaintiff) worked at Revlon, Inc. (Defendant) for ten years, most recently in the company’s purchasing department in Phoenix, Arizona. Karl Braun (Defendant), a purchasing department manager was Plaintiff’s supervisor. During a “business” dinner and later at a company picnic, Braun made inappropriate sexual comments and touched Plaintiff in a sexual manner. After Plaintiff rejected Braun’s advances, he informed her that she would “regret this.” Thereafter, Plaintiff spoke with a number of Revlon personnel about the unwanted contact and statements made by Braun. When meeting with a personnel manager, Plaintiff became very emotional when recounting the incidents and said that she was afraid of Braun. Plaintiff also petitioned for a transfer out of the purchasing department. During the time of the harassment, Plaintiff developed high blood pressure, a nervous tic in her left eye, chest pains, rapid breathing, and other symptoms. After Plaintiff had spent more than nine months speaking to various Revlon personnel, Braun was first confronted and told that he would be “closely monitored.” A full year and one month after Braun’s initial act of harassment he was issued a letter of censure from Revlon. Almost four months later, Plaintiff attempted suicide. Shortly thereafter, Braun was terminated. Plaintiff sued Braun and Revlon for assault and battery and for intentional infliction of emotional distress. A jury found Braun liable for assault and battery, but not liable for intentional infliction of emotional distress and found Revlon liable for intentional infliction of emotional distress, but not liable for assault and battery. Revlon appealed. The court of appeals reversed and held since Braun, as an agent of Revlon, could be found not guilty of intentional infliction of emotional distress, then Revlon, as principal, could not be found guilty. The Arizona Supreme Court granted review of the case.
Whether an employer may be independently liable for intentional infliction of emotional distress against an employee.
Yes. The court of appeals’ ruling is vacated and the trial court’s ruling is reinstated. An employer may be independently liable for intentional infliction of emotional distress against an employee.
Generally, it is true that when a master’s liability is based solely on the negligence of a servant, both parties may be found liable. When the negligence of the master is independent of the negligence of the servant, the result may be different. Here, the court of appeals noted that where there is independent negligence on the part of the master, the master may be liable, separate from a servant’s wrongful acts. In that instance, a judgment in favor of a servant will not bar liability from being imposed upon the master. However, the master must have “been guilty of acts on which independently of the acts of the servant, liability may be predicated.” (Emphasis supplied). DeGraff v. Smith, 62 Ariz. 261, 266, 157 P.2d 342, 344 (1945). Such analysis should be applied to intentional tort cases. Here, Revlon’s failure to investigate Plaintiff’s complaint was independent of Braun’s reprehensible conduct toward Plaintiff. The issue is whether Revlon’s conduct was intentional or reckless and whether it rose to an “outrageous and extreme” level. Even if Revlon’s conduct was not intentional, it certainly was reckless. Revlon had knowledge that Braun had subjected Plaintiff to physical assaults, vulgar remarks, that Plaintiff felt threatened by Braun, and that Plaintiff was emotionally distraught which led to a manifestation of physical symptoms. Revlon not only had actual knowledge of the situation, but it also failed to promptly conduct an investigation of Plaintiff's complaint. Additionally, by making numerous reports to various Revlon managers regarding Braun’s conduct, Plaintiff did everything that could be done to address the matter. Revlon ignored her and dragged the matter out for months, leaving Plaintiff without any resolution. Such conduct by Revlon is outrageous. As a result, Plaintiff suffered emotional distress as evidenced by ample medical and other related evidence. Revlon’s lack of action directly contradicted its written policy for investigating such incidents. Finally, Revlon argues that Plaintiff’s emotional stress medical circumstance is controlled by the state’s Worker’s Compensation laws and not by a tort action. However, Plaintiff’s distress injury was found by the jury not to be an accident, not unexpected, and essentially nonphysical in nature, which places Plaintiff’s injury outside the scope of Worker’s Compensation.