CAN INSTITUTIONS BE SUED FOR THE MOLESTATION OF CHILDREN BY ITS EMPLOYEES?

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News stories regarding the Penn State University sex abuse scandal have raised questions concerning the circumstances under which an institution can be liable for money damages for sex abuse committed by one of its employees. This is an important question because, oftentimes, the individual offender does not have assets sufficient to pay any monetary damage award. Generally, an institutional defendant can be financially liable for harm caused by a sexual predator employee if the institution knew, or should have known, of the dangerous propensity of that employee.

But what if the abuse occurs after the employee is no longer employed by that institution? This fact situation was faced by the Idaho Court of Appeals in the case of John Doe vs. Sister of the Holy Cross d/b/a St. Alphonsus Regional Medical Center, 895 P.2d 1229 (1995).

In that case, a 13 year old boy was admitted to the St. Alphonsus hospital for serious injuries following an accident. While at the hospital he became acquainted with respiratory therapist Fred Garcia. Prior to his discharge from the hospital, Garcia gave the boy his telephone number and asked him to call. The two began communicating after the boy left the hospital, with Garcia spending significant time with the boy, including sleepovers at Garcia’s home. Garcia was eventually fired by the hospital after it was learned that he invited other minors to his home to consume alochol.

Sometime after Garcia’s firing, he began to sexually abuse the child over a period of several years. The boy’s parents eventually learned of the abuse, and alerted law enforcement. Garcia was convicted and sent to jail for lewd conduct with a child.

The hospital successfully persuaded the trial court to dismiss the suit for negligence, based on the theory that the molestation was too remote to be considered caused by hospital negligence. The Idaho Court of Appeals disagreed, and remanded that case back to the lower court for trial. The court stated that an act of negligence can be considered a “cause” of harm if that cause is a “substantial factor” in bringing about the harm. The court also restated the settled Idaho law concerning foreseeable harm, which states:

“In general, it is held that one owes the duty to every person in our society to use reasonable care to avoid injury to the other person in any situation in which it could be reasonably anticipated or foreseen that a failure to use such care might result in such injury.”

Thus the court held that the child would be permitted to proceed to trial against the hospital for negligence.