The evidence was clear: Randall Smith* was a dangerous man. At the time of this case, he was in his 50s and had a criminal record that stretched back into his 20s—it was dotted with violent crimes in several states. He had most recently served a nine year sentence in an Ohio prison for kidnapping and robbery charges. The facts of that crime: After being fired from his job at a convenience store, he returned, and took his former coworkers hostage at knifepoint because he blamed them for his termination.
A few years later, Smith was working for a company when he made some sexually harassing comments to his coworker, Becky Diel*. Becky went to her supervisor and made a complaint about the incident. Smith was fired.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t the last Becky heard of Randall Smith. A couple weeks after his firing, Smith showed up at Becky’s home, forced his way in, tied her up, and sexually assaulted her. After the violent assault, he left her bound, injured, and alone. Thankfully, she was able to free herself and call 9-1-1.
Smith found himself back in prison, a place he will be for a very long time, because his record proves he’s a habitual violent offender. Becky, however, was left to suffer from the tragic event.
Ignored background check leads to personal injury
Becky came to us when she decided to seek out a personal injury attorney to help her recover from the assault. Her injuries were substantial. She had been both physically and sexually assaulted—two incredibly traumatizing events. We wanted to help Becky get justice for the wrongs that Smith had committed against her, and help her get back to a normal life. As you might imagine, Smith did not have any assets to pursue that might help his victim, so we needed a different approach.
We believed it was possible to prove negligence on the part of the employer, for hiring someone with such a violent history (especially toward former coworkers). Smith had disclosed directly on his employment application that he had committed a felony. Since the employer had hired him despite his felony, we wanted to know what their process was for using that information—but when asked, the employer didn’t have an answer.
We began by trying to uncover the employer’s policy for using background checks. As part of the application process, the employer required that the applicant “pass” a criminal background check—which would indicate that there were established standards for what would constitute passing and failing. But the further we investigated, the more we discovered that no one had an answer for what it meant to fail a background check. The human resources employees who signed off on background checks simply didn’t have firm guidelines to follow on how to evaluate different types of criminal history. We spoke with former managers who told us when they raised concerns about certain types of offenders working in specific job functions, the company informed them that the questions they could ask the applicant’s about their criminal history were limited.
In the state of Ohio, it’s possible to get a criminal history report from the investigation division of the state attorney general’s office.
In Smith’s case, his whole history was right there on the face of the report—but nobody at the company did anything to learn more about his offenses in Ohio, or any other state.
Proving employer negligence
The employer’s defense was twofold: First, it’s wrong to automatically disqualify felons from hiring. The employer argued that Randall Smith served nine years and paid his debt, and they were not automatically negligent just because they’d hired him.
The employer’s second defense—one that presented a bigger challenge for us—was that Smith was a former employee when the crime was committed, and the assault happened off the work site. Based on those facts, the company claimed there was no way they could have prevented the attack.
Our argument came down to this: It’s the duty of an employer to provide a safe workplace and a safe environment. But, exactly how far does that duty extend, and what does the employer have to do to satisfy it? We dug a little deeper into some legal principles that ask the simple question: Is the harm foreseeable? And ultimately, based on Smith’s extensive criminal background, we were able to prove that it was.
This case was particularly sensitive in that Becky did not want to be the center of attention. We did our best to be sensitive to her needs, and made sure that we completed as much work as possible without having to involve her. She had to give a deposition, but beyond that was involved only as much as she wanted to be. At the end of the case, after we had uncovered substantial evidence that we believed would prove employer negligence, Becky received a settlement and she was able to begin putting the assault behind her.
If feels good to be able to make a difference in people’s lives. In addition to helping Becky recover, we hope the outcome of this case will prevent similar crimes from happening in the future. Helping our clients become whole again after tragic events is the goal we aim to achieve with every case we take.
The outcome of any client’s case will depend on the particular legal and factual circumstances of the case.
*Names in this article have been changed to protect our client’s privacy.