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Home Depot negligence charges stemming from murder reinstated

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A federal appeals court has reinstated negligence charges against Home Depot USA Inc. and associated firms in connection with the rape and murder of a young woman by her supervisor.

Brain Cooper, a regional manager for Atlanta-based Home Depot USA, “had a history of sexually harassing his young female subordinates,” according to Friday’s ruling by the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago in Sherry Anicich v. Home Depot USA Inc. et al.

After one woman whom he had allegedly sexually harassed quit her job, Mr. Cooper turned his attention to Alisha Bromfield, who had begun working for the defendants as a teenager in 2007, and worked seasonally for them until her death in 2012, according to the ruling.

He began calling her his girlfriend, then started swearing and yelling at her, and “became increasingly controlling of Alisha’s time away from work,” including requiring her to come with him on business trips, according to the ruling.

Although she “complained repeatedly” about him to other supervisors and managers, he remained her supervisor, according to the ruling. In 2012, when Ms. Bromfield was 21 and about seven months pregnant, Mr. Cooper began asking her to go to his sister’s wedding in Wisconsin. She refused.

“Then, invoking the authority the defendants had entrusted to him as a supervisor, he told her he would fire her or reduce her hours if she did not go,” said the ruling. 

She went, and after the wedding Mr. Cooper took her to the hotel he had rented for the two of them and asked her again to be in a relationship with him and she again refused. “Cooper strangled her to death. He then raped her corpse,” said the ruling.

Mr. Cooper was sentenced to two consecutive terms without the possibility of parole in 2014 in connection with the murder, according to news reports.

Ms. Bromfield’s mother, Ms. Anicich, filed suit, charging defendants with negligence in connection with her daughter’s death. Also named as defendants in the case were Grand Service LLC and Grand Flower Growers Inc., based in Wayland, Wisconsin, which managed garden centers for Home Depot stores. All three defendants jointly employed Mr. Cooper as a regional manager.

The defendants “persuaded the District Court that they had no duty to control this supervisor’s behavior,” and the U.S. District Court in Chicago then dismissed the case, according to the ruling.

A unanimous three-judge panel of the 7th Circuit reinstated it. 

“To succeed on a claim for negligent hiring, supervision, or retention, the plaintiff must demonstrate that the employee’s ‘particular unfitness’ rendered the plaintiff’s injury foreseeable, said the ruling, in addressing one of the defendants’ arguments and quoting an earlier case.

“The amended complaint recounts how Cooper’s behavior escalated: from private inappropriate comments and touching, to workplace retaliation, to continual harassment and monitoring, and finally to public outbursts, verbal abuse, and physical intimidation.

“Hearing such evidence, a reasonable jury could easily find that the employers could and should have foreseen that Cooper would take the small further step to violence,” the ruling said.

“Every life lost to brutality is unique, each family’s hell a private one. We do not diminish that truth when we repeat that Alisha’s story is an old story that has been told too many times. Its ending is both shocking and predictable. Alisha’s family is entitled to try to prove its truth,” said the ruling in reversing the lower court ruling and remanding the case for further proceedings.