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On Friday, it was reported that a Nevada woman has sued Match.com for “failing to disclose dangers of online dating.”

Mary Kay Beckman’s experience was certainly traumatic: she alleges she met Wade Ridley through the site and dated him for a mere eight days. After a couple of harassing text messages, he disappeared for four months then surprised her in her garage, stabbing her repeatedly, stomping on her, and leaving her for dead. She has since had three brain surgeries, as well as “extensive psychological counseling, dental care to repair her jaw, treatment with eye and ear specialists to preserve her sight and hearing, and continued physical therapy.” Ridley was subsequently charged with the murder of another woman. He killed himself in prison.

Beckman is certainly a sympathetic plaintiff, and her tragic case of domestic violence is another reminder of why the Violence Against Women Act should be reauthorized. Tort law, however, is not about sympathy, but rather responsibility. In this case, we return to a basic question of tort law: when do we hold a person or company responsible for the criminal actions of another?

I’ve written about this issue several times before, exploring whether Jerry Sandusky’s abuse victims can sue Penn State, whether Jaycee Dugard can sue over negligent parole supervision, whether Yale should be liable for Annie Le’s death, and whether Monsignor Lynn had a duty to report child abuse by priests. It’s certainly not a common legal issue, but it resurfaces regularly; two weeks ago, the widow of a man killed in the Aurora theater shooting sued James Holmes’ psychiatrist.

The key legal word here is “duty.” Did Match.com have any legal duties to Beckman, and, if so, what were those duties? Here’s the Match.com complaint. Putting off the other details for a moment, let’s focus on its claims about a legal duty: 
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I’ve written several times before how difficult it is to sue the government for failing to do its job, like how you can’t sue the police department for failing to enforce a court order. It’s tough to sue the government even when they wrongly entrap and then kill your son for the trivial ‘crime’ of sports betting. The government doesn’t even need to train its prosecutors in the basics of constitutional law.

“Civil rights” is a tough area in which to practice law, if you’re representing the plaintiffs. There aren’t “typical” civil rights cases, because typical isn’t good enough under the law. The facts need to be extraordinary and egregious. “Shocks the conscience” is the verbage ordinarily used by courts to deny claims:

To this end, for half a century now we have spoken of the cognizable level of executive abuse of power as that which shocks the conscience. We first put the test this way in Rochin v.California, supra, at 172-173, where we found the forced pumping of a suspect’s stomach enough to offend due process as conduct “that shocks the conscience” and violates the “decencies of civilized conduct.” In the intervening 847*847 years we have repeatedly adhered to Rochin `s benchmark. See, e. g., Breithaupt v. Abram, 352 U. S. 432, 435 (1957) (reiterating that conduct that “`shocked the conscience’ and was so `brutal’ and `offensive’ that it did not comport with traditional ideas of fair play and decency” would violate substantive due process);Whitley v. Albers, 475 U. S. 312, 327 (1986) (same); United States v. Salerno, 481 U. S. 739, 746 (1987) (“So-called `substantive due process’ prevents the government from engaging in conduct that `shocks the conscience,’. . . or interferes with rights `implicit in the concept of ordered liberty’ “) (quoting Rochin v. California, supra, at 172, and Palko v. Connecticut, 302 U. S. 319, 325-326 (1937)). Most recently, in Collins v. Harker Heights, supra, at 128, we said again that the substantive component of the Due Process Clause is violated by executive action only when it “can properly be characterized as arbitrary, or conscience shocking, in a constitutional sense.” While the measure of what is conscience shocking is no calibrated yard stick, it does, as Judge Friendly put it, “poin[t] the way.” Johnson v. Glick, 481 F. 2d 1028, 1033 (CA2), cert. denied, 414 U. S. 1033 (1973).

County of Sacramento v. Lewis, 523 U.S. 833 (1998)(emphasis added). Unfortunately, the lack of a “calibrated yard stick” often leaves civil rights victims at the whim of courts. If the federal district judge or two of the federal appellate judges assigned to a case believe the conduct in question doesn’t “shock the conscience,” then the case is dismissed, without a minute of testimony in front of a jury.

All of those barriers apply to cases even where the government actor — a police officer, parole officer, a prison guard, et cetera — is the one who directly caused the harm. If the harm was caused by someone else, like an abusive spouse the police refused to enforce an order against (the situation in the Gonzales case in the first link), then there are even more barriers. A basic precept of tort law is that there is no duty to control the conduct of a third person to prevent him from causing harm to another absent a “special relationship” between either the dangerous person or potential victim. Restatement (Second) of Torts Section 315.

It doesn’t take too much of a logical leap to see how a parole board has a “special relationship” with a parolee or how child protective services have a “special relationship” with both the children they’re supposed to protect and the suspected abusers they’re supposed to protect those children from, and some courts have adopted that approach — perhaps most notably, the Supreme Court of Arizona in Grimm v. Arizona Bd. of Pardons & Paroles, 564 P.2d 1227 (1977), but many courts don’t see it that way, particularly not for constitutional claims. In DeShaney v. Winnebago County Dept. of Social Servs., 489 U.S. 189 (1989),

Poor Joshua! Victim of repeated attacks by an irresponsible, bullying, cowardly, and intemperate father, and abandoned by respondents who placed him in a dangerous predicament and who knew or learned what was going on, and yet did essentially nothing except, as the Court revealingly observes, ante, at 193, “dutifully recorded these incidents in [their] files.” It is a sad commentary upon American life, and constitutional principles — so full of late of patriotic fervor and proud proclamations about “liberty and justice for all” — that this child, Joshua DeShaney, now is assigned to live out the remainder of his life profoundly retarded. Joshua and his mother, as petitioners here, deserve — but now are denied by this Court — the opportunity to have the facts of their case considered in the light of the constitutional protection that 42 U. S. C. § 1983 is meant to provide.

Justice Blackmun’s “Poor Joshua!” lament, though, as a dissent. Joshua wasn’t even allowed to present his case that the Winnebago County Department of Social Services failed him and put him in further danger by leaving him with his father. He lost without his day in court.

That’s what came to mind for me when I read that Jaycee Dugard had sued the United States and a variety of its parole officers (complaint here; a summary here) for a litany of astonishingly lapses in judgment during Phillip Garrido’s parole for rape:

Garrido’s federal parole officers, therapists and counselors described him at various times throughout his federal parole term as follows: ‘a time bomb,’ ‘like a pot boiling with no outlet valve,’ ‘potentially very volatile,’ ‘potential for causing great physical harm is present,’ ‘problems with sexual overtones,’ ‘did not seem honest … as if he was putting on an act,’ ‘possible danger to the community is high,’ ‘major problems are presented in this case,’ ‘there is always threat of repeat [kidnap/rape],’ ‘still seems dangerous to the public … is liable to give little or no warning,’ ‘substantial risk to women,’ ‘is always a threat to women,’ ‘potential rapist.’” …

Despite Garrido’s well-known propensities, federal parole authorities ignored report after report of sexual misconduct by Garrido. For example, Garrido’s parole officers were informed by his 1976 rape victim that shortly after being paroled, Garrido appeared at her workplace and made an alarming comment to her. Inexplicably, the federal parole authorities responsible for Garrido’s direct supervision disregarded the victim’s concerns as mere ‘hysteria’ even though Garrido’s time cards indicated he was not at work during the hours he was alleged to have been seen by the victim. Upon learning of the victim’s statement, Garrido’s own counselor suggested that Garrido be placed on electronic monitoring. Garrido’s parole officer, however, ignored this recommendation and concluded that ‘to subject this individual to electronic monitoring would be too much of a hassle.

The Dugard kidnapping — which, as the complaint alleges, would never happened had the federal government taken the threat Garrido posed towards women seriously — should have become part of the national conversation about the ways that government agencies systematically downplay and under-report rape and sexual assault, but that’s an issue for another day.

For now, there’s the question of the United States’ liability for Dugard’s ordeal. Dugard and her daughters already collected $20 million from the State of California for its role; I don’t know if that reflected an assessment of the merits of her claim or a recognition that the social contract required we do what we can for Dugard and her kids.
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As a Yale alum, I was shocked and horrified by the death of Annie Le, a Yale School of Medicine student murdered just a week before her own wedding. Like the Petit family murders, the crime was just a depraved act by a stranger, despite attempts by some to downplay it as a “crime of passion” or “workplace violence,” as if any rape-murder were less evil if the perpetrator had delusions of attachment at the time of the crime or if they happened to be employed by the same company. She was targeted and it was murder; we know that from the guilty plea. It may have been sexual assault, too; Raymond Clark submitted an Alford plea to that.

Last week, just before the statute of limitations for negligence would run, Le’s estate filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Yale:

The estate of former pharmacology student Annie Le GRD ’13 filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the University in New Haven Superior Court on Tuesday, alleging that pervasive sexual harrassment at the University “emboldened” her killer, Raymond Clark III, who is serving a 44-year sentence for the murder and who the suit claims was hired through Yale’s negligence.

The complaint is here. While I can understand why the estate’s lawyers, Joseph Tacopina (Greenfield, who knows him, has a bit more about him here) and Paul Slager, want to tie Le’s death to the Title IX problems at Yale and thereby generally show university indifference to women’s safety, I don’t see that serving as enough of a factual basis for an independent legal claim. There’s no clear causal connection between Yale’s sexual harassment / sexual assault policies and Le’s death; as far as I’ve seen, Le never filed any sort of sexual harassment or sexual assault claim at the school, so it’s hard to claim that, if those policies had been better, she wouldn’t have been murdered.

Although there’s technically an inadequate security claim in there arising from the security of the building and the failure to search for Le, I don’t see the causal connection there: from all accounts, it seems that, if they had searched earlier, they just would have found Le’s body earlier, rather than preventing the attack.

The strongest claim is predicated on the hiring of Clark himself, and that claim has a bit more behind it and a much closer connection to her death:

The complaint alleges that Yale was negligent in its screening of Clark, who had shown “a violent propensity towards women” before he was hired in 2004. As police began to investigate his possible involvement in Le’s death in mid-September 2009, the New Haven Independent reported that Clark forced his high school girlfriend to have sex with him when they were students …

In addition to Clark’s records, the suit alleges Yale had access to information about Clark’s violent past because the University also employed Clark’s sister and brother-in-law as laboratory technicians in the 10 Amistad St. building where Le was killed. Those two employees were both “well aware” of Clark’s past behavior given their relationship to him, the suit claims.

This sort of negligent hiring claim isn’t novel. The primary case in that field is Ponticas v. KMS Investments, 331 N.W.2d 907 (Minn. 1983). It wasn’t the first, but it’s probably the most frequently cited, and it set the path for tort liability where an employer is alleged to have negligently hired a dangerous or incompetent person:

Liability is predicated on the negligence of an employer in placing a person with known propensities, or propensities which should have been discovered by reasonable investigation, in an employment position in which, because of the circumstances of the employment, it should have been foreseeable that the hired individual posed a threat of injury to others.

Connecticut’s appellate court has already adopted the same theory in Seguro v. Cummiskey, 82 Conn.App. 186 (2004):

A review of case law in other jurisdictions reveals that employers may be directly liable for the negligent hiring, retention or supervision of an employee who, through a tortious act, injures a third party. See, e.g., Island City Flying Service v. General Electric Credit Corp., 585 So. 2d 274, 276 (Fla. 1991)(“employer is liable for the willful tort of his employee committed against a third person if he knew or should have known that the employee was a threat to others”); Henley v. Prince George’s County, 305 Md. 320, 336, 503 A.2d 1333 (1986) (employer has duty to use reasonable care to select employees competent and fit for work assigned to them); Ponticas v.K.M.S. Investments, 331 N.W.2d 907, 910 (Minn. 1983) (“person injured by a negligently retained employee may recover damages from the employer”); Di Cosala v. Kay, 91 N.J. 159, 170-71, 450 A.2d 508 (1982) (“employer whose employees are brought into contact with members of the public in the course of their employment is responsible for exercising a duty of reasonable care in the selection or retention of its employees”); Soares v. Ann & Hope of Rhode Island, Inc., 637 A.2d 339, 346 (R.I. 1994) (recognizing “`direct liability of an employer to third parties who are injured by acts of unfit, incompetent, or unsuitable employees’”); Welsh Mfg. v. Pinkerton’s, Inc., 474 A.2d 436, 440 (R.I. 1984) (“employer may be directly liable for wrongful acts of its negligently hired employee”); J. v. Victory Tabernacle Baptist Church, 236 Va. 206, 208-209, 372 S.E.2d 391 (1988) (recognizing tort of negligent hiring).

Unfortunately, it looks like a hard sell for the Le estate.
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