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EDPA Grants Partial Summary Judgment on Negligent Hiring and Vicarious Liability Claims

November 25, 2020

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<p style="text-align: justify;">In <em><a href="https://www.wcmlaw.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/Hena-v.-Target-Corporation.pdf">Hena v. Target Corporation</a></em>, 2020 WL 6321581 (E.D. Pa. Oct. 28, 2020), the Eastern District of Pennsylvania dismissed claims for negligent hiring and vicarious liability arising from a slip and fall accident.</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">In brief, in August 2018, Beatrice Hena was shopping in a Target store in Philadelphia when she “slipped on a slippery and dangerous wet floor and fell, causing her to suffer serious and permanent personal injuries.” Hena filed a three-count Complaint in the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia, and Target removed the case to the Eastern District based on diversity jurisdiction. Target then moved to dismiss the counts alleging negligent hiring, selection, and retention and vicarious liability.</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">Specifically, in Count II of her complaint, Hena alleged that Target “negligently hired, retained, contracted, employed, selected, and/or controlled incompetent and unskilled individuals or entities” to keep Target’s aisles free from any hazardous or dangerous conditions. The Court took a two-step approach to dismiss the negligent hiring claim. First, it looked to the Restatement (Second) of Torts §317, which creates an exception to the general rule that a person has no duty to control the conduct of third persons. It provides that when an employee is on the employer’s premises, the employer must exercise reasonable care to control his employee while acting outside the scope of his employment. The Court held that this section did not apply because Hena had specifically pleaded that the employee’s “acts or failures to act were within the course and scope of Defendant’s business.”</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">Next, the Court turned to the Restatement (Second) of Agency § 213, which imposes liability on corporations for negligent hiring or supervision. Under Section 213, an employer may be liable for negligent hiring “if it knew or should have known that an employee was dangerous, careless, or incompetent and such employment might create a situation where the employee’s conduct would harm a third person.” The Court held that the complaint did not identify or even allude to a single Target employee and contained no “factual allegations related to the cause or characteristics of the allegedly dangerous condition or why the condition should have been foreseeable given what Target knew or should have known about its employees.” The Court disposed of the negligent hiring claim by saying “Plaintiff cannot transform a simple premises liability action into a negligent hiring case by including broad, conclusory allegations about unidentified, unskilled or incompetent employees in her Complaint."</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">Finally, the Court dismissed Count III for failure to state a claim for vicarious liability or respondeat superior. An employer is vicariously liable for the wrongful acts of an employee if that act was committed during the course and scope of employment. However, “respondeat superior merely connotes a doctrine of imputation once an underlying theory of liability has been established. It is not a separate cause of action.” The Court reiterated that Hena had not identified any agent of Target or any specific tortious action by an agent that could be imputed to Target to support an independent count of vicarious liability, and had therefore failed to establish an independent claim for vicarious liability.</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">The Court’s decision in <em>Hena</em> reiterates that “broad, conclusory allegations,” rather than specific facts, will invariably be insufficient to support a claim for relief in Pennsylvania federal court.</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">Thanks to Jim Scott for his contribution to this post. If you have any questions or comments, please contact <a href="mailto:chayes@wcmlaw.com">Colleen Hayes</a>.</p>

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