CHICAGO — An appeals court has restored a civil lawsuit that blames Home Depot for not firing a suburban Chicago supervisor with a history of sexual harassment who ended up strangling a 21-year-old pregnant subordinate — in a civil case focused on the liability of companies when supervisors use their authority to hurt co-workers away from work.
The unanimous decision by a three-judge panel of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reverses a lower court decision that threw out the suit, which stems from the 2012 killing of Alisha Bromfield and her fetus by her then 37-year-old supervisor, Brian Cooper, while they attended a wedding at a Wisconsin resort 300 miles from Chicago.
The ruling cites statistics that at least 60 people have been intentionally killed by co-workers in recent years in the U.S., adding that "Alisha's story is an old story that has been told too many times."
Cooper, of Plainfield, who raped Bromfield after killing her, was sentenced to life in prison in 2014.
The Illinois woman's mother, Sherry Anicich, later sued Home Depot U.S.A., Inc., alleging it knew of Cooper's history of verbal abuse and should have sacked him long before. Also named as defendants are Grand Service, LLC, and Grand Flower Growers, Inc., which managed garden centers at the Home Depot stores. All three jointly employed Cooper as a regional manager, says the 22-page ruling posted late on Friday. Bromfield, who was also from Plainfield, was a seasonal employee for the home-improvement company and worked at several Chicago-area Home Depots.
The ruling said that a decisive question a jury would have to decide as the case goes back to U.S. district court is whether Cooper used the supervisory authority he wielded over Bromfield at work to force her to go to the wedding of his sister in Wisconsin; he allegedly threatened to fire her if she didn't go. If he used that power as a supervisor, Home Depot and the co-defendants could be held liable for the deaths.
Kristin Barnette, a Chicago-based attorney for Bromfield's mother, heralded the ruling. She said it helps establish that recklessly granting supervisory powers can potentially be as deadly as recklessly handing unfit workers a buzz saw or other dangerous tools. Liability, she said the ruling found, didn't rely on whether abuses occurred on workplace grounds.
A spokesman for Atlanta-based Home Depot, Stephen Holmes, said company lawyers were still considering options, which he said could include an appeal. But he added: "First and foremost, our sympathy is with (Bromfield's) family." He said Cooper was technically not a contract employee of Home Depot but agreed the court said he was treated as an employee for practical purposes.
Over Bromfield's five years working off and on for Home Depot, Cooper would also curse and throw things at her, sometimes in public, according to court filings. She repeatedly told top managers about the abuse and said that she never wanted to be alone with Cooper.