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Employer Not Liable for Employee’s Illicit Relationship (NJ)

July 3, 2019

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<p style="text-align: justify;">The facts of<em> <a href="">G.A.-H v. K.G.G., et al.</a></em> are unfortunate. Discovery revealed that the plaintiff was fifteen (15) years old when defendant K.G.G., age 44, began an illicit relationship. While the relationship was ongoing, K.G.G. worked with defendant A.M. for defendant GEM Ambulance, LLC (GEM) as emergency medical technicians (EMTs). In her complaint, the plaintiff alleged that A.M. should have reported K.G.G. to his supervisors at GEM, and that GEM was vicariously liable for A.M.’s failure to report K.G.G.’s conduct and GEM’s own negligence in retaining, training, and supervising both employees.</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">The trial court granted A.M. and GEM summary judgment, holding that A.M. had no duty to report K.G.G. and that the facts did not create a reasonable basis for A.M. to believe that K.G.G. was engaged in an illicit relationship with a minor. On appeal, the Appellate Division vacated summary judgment, ruling that common law did not necessarily preclude the imposition of a duty to report that a co-worker is engaged in an illicit relationship with a minor. Since, according to the Appellate Division, the record was not sufficiently developed to determine whether A.M. knew of the relationship, the case was remanded. Defendants appealed.</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">The New Jersey Supreme Court conducted a thorough review of the record. Although K.G.G. bragged that he was in a relationship, he never identified the plaintiff by real name or age. In fact, K.G.G. often stated various ages when co-workers asked the age of his “girlfriend.” On one occasion, he indicated the plaintiff was “twenty-two.” Further, although K.G.G. would sometimes park a GEM ambulance near the plaintiff’s bus stop and walk her to bus stop, no other GEM EMT interacted with the plaintiff and the bus stop could not be seen from the GEM vehicle.</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">The Court recognized that <span style="text-decoration: underline;">J.S. v. R.T.H.</span>, 155 N.J. 330 (1998) held that spouses owe children abused by other spouses a duty of care to take reasonable steps when they have “actual knowledge or special reason to know” the other spouse is abusing or likely to abuse an identifiable victim. <span style="text-decoration: underline;">Ibid</span> at 352. Here, the Court declined to decide whether a “special reason to know” duty should apply to co-workers because, based on the record, no reasonable trier of fact could find that A.M. knew, or had special reason to know, that K.G.G. was engaged in an illicit relationship. Because the record revealed that A.M. did not owe a duty of care, it did not require any further development. The Supreme Court reversed the Appellate Division’s judgment and reinstated the trial court’s grants of summary judgment.</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">Although the New Jersey Supreme Court did not, in this case, find that co-workers have a duty to report illicit relationships if they have a “special reason to know” such a relationship is occurring, a case with a different set of facts might sway the Court in that direction. Employers may therefore choose to be proactive and cognizant of this potential expansion of an employee’s duty to report identified illicit relationships in order to prevent civil judgments on vicarious liability grounds.</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">Thanks to Brent Bouma for his contribution to this post. Please email <a href="">Vito A. Pinto</a> with any questions.</p>

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