On July 17, 2017, the Illinois Appellate Court, First District, held that punitive damages are recoverable under Illinois law in the employment law claim for negligent hiring, supervision or retention of a dangerous employee, even if the employer lacked actual knowledge of the employee’s dangerous propensity. John Doe v. The Catholic Bishop of Chicago, et al., 2017 IL App (1st) 162388 (First Dist. 7/17/2017). The plaintiff in this case filed a negligent employment claim against the defendant, in which he alleged that a former priest sexually molested him while he attended a school that employed the priest. He claimed punitive damages. On appeal, the First District considered the question of whether a claim for punitive damages requires proof of an employer’s conscious disregard for an employee’s particular unfitness, where the underlying claim is for negligent hiring, supervision and retention of that employee.
The plaintiff alleged that the defendant was negligent in hiring, retaining and supervising the priest, and he claimed punitive damages, alleging that the defendant consciously disregarded the known risk that the priest posed to the plaintiff and its parishioners. The certified question on appeal was whether the plaintiff must show evidence that the defendant knew of the priest’s alleged propensity to sexually abuse children in order to claim punitive damages in a negligent employment complaint. Under Illinois law, to state a claim for negligent hiring or retention of an employee, the plaintiff must plead and prove: (1) that the employer knew or should have known that the employee had a particular unfitness for the position so as to create a danger of harm to third persons; (2) that the particular unfitness was known or should have been known at the time of the employee’s hiring or retention; and (3) that the particular unfitness proximately caused the plaintiff’s injury. The particular unfitness of the employee must have rendered the plaintiff’s injury foreseeable to a person of ordinary prudence in the employer’s position. The defendant argued, however, that to support a claim for punitive damages, the plaintiff must also demonstrate the defendant’s conscious disregard or willful and wanton conduct by alleging that the defendant had actual knowledge of the priest’s alleged propensity to sexually assault children. The First District disagreed, stating that the trial court may allow a claim for punitive damages if the evidence would reasonably support a finding that the defendant acted willfully, or with such gross negligence as to indicate a wanton disregard of the rights of others. The trial court used the appropriate legal standard when it found that the plaintiff presented sufficient facts that would allow a jury to reasonably find that the defendant showed an utter indifference to the rights and safety of others in ordaining the priest and allowed the plaintiff to submit a punitive damages claim. Evidence of the defendant’s actual knowledge of the priest’s alleged propensity to sexually abuse children is not required to support the plaintiff’s claim for punitive damages.