Illinois Appellate Court Affirms Claim for Punitive Damages for Negligent Hiring, Supervision and Retention in Sexual Predator Lawsuit

This was a pretrial hearing on the motion to add a punitive damage count to a complaint against the Catholic Bishop of Chicago for alleged negligent conduct in hiring, supervising and retaining a priest who allegedly abused John Doe when he was a third-grade student at St. Agatha Academy. The archdiocese argued that Doe shouldn’t have to prove that representatives actually knew about the priest’s wrongdoing and wicked proclivities.

The trial judge ruled that Doe’s evidence about the “utter indifference” of archdiocesan employees’ safety for the young students could justify an exemplary or a claim of punitive damages. The judge certified the question of law for immediate appeal to the Illinois Appellate Court. The appeals panel concluded that the judge “used the appropriate standard” in concluding that Doe may demand punitive damages in his amended complaint.

“Simply put,” Justice Sheldon A. Harris explained, “the trial court may allow a claim for punitive damages if the evidence would reasonably support a finding that defendant acted willfully, or with such gross negligence as to indicate a wanton disregard of the rights of others.”

In this case, John Doe filed a negligent employment claim against defendant, the Catholic Bishop of Chicago, claiming that Daniel McCormack, a former priest employed at St. Agatha’s school, sexually molested Doe while he attended the school. The trial judge granted Doe’s leave to amend his complaint to add a claim for punitive damages.

In the underlying complaint, Doe alleged that the priest sexually molested him when he was in the third grade at St. Agatha Academy, an institution owned, operated and maintained by the Catholic Bishop of Chicago. Doe also alleged that the Catholic Bishop retained and supervised this priest and thus he sought punitive damages arguing that the defendant “consciously disregarded the known risk McCormack posed to plaintiff and its parishioners.”

In support of Doe’s motion for punitive damages, he cited evidence showing that the Catholic Bishop (1) had knowledge of scandal and sexual misconduct involving their priests and minors; (2) failed to follow record-keeping policies adopted in response to the scandal; (3) knew of McCormack’s misconduct while he was a seminary student at Niles College and Mundelein Seminary; and (4) failed to investigate reports of McCormack’s misconduct after he was ordained a priest and failed to report suspicious incidents involving McCormack and minors to the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services.

The court analyzed the basis in which a plaintiff may seek punitive damages. The Illinois Supreme Court described circumstances in which a punitive damages award is appropriate, such as “when torts are committed with fraud, actual malice, deliberate violence or oppression, or when the defendant acts willfully, or with such gross negligence as to indicate a wanton disregard of the rights of others.” Kelsay v. Motorola, Inc., 74 Ill.2d 172 (1978).  However, “punitive damages are not awarded for mere inadvertence, mistakes, errors of judgment and the like, which constitute ordinary negligence.” Loitz v. Remington Arms, 138 Ill.2d 404 (1990).

In this case, the trial judge found that Doe “presented sufficient facts that would allow a jury to reasonably find that the defendants showed an utter indifference to the rights and safety of others in ordaining [d]efendant McCormack,” and therefore allowed plaintiff Doe to submit a punitive damages claim. The appeals panel found that the trial judge used the appropriate standard in reaching that conclusion. For these reasons, the court answered the certified question in the negative to the extent that it requires evidence of the defendants’ actual knowledge of McCormack’s propensity to abuse children to support plaintiff’s claim for punitive damages as the Catholic Bishop had argued.

Doe v. Catholic Bishop of Chicago, 2017 IL App (1st) 162388 (July 17, 2017).

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling catastrophic injury cases, nursing home abuse cases, birth injury cases and traumatic brain injury lawsuits for individuals and families who have been harmed, injured or died as a result of the carelessness or negligence of another for more than 40 years in and around Chicago, Cook County and its surrounding areas, including Morton Grove, Wheaton, Hinsdale, Mundelein, Arlington Heights, Evergreen Park, Country Club Hills, Countryside, Calumet City, Blue Island, South Holland, Alsip, Harvey, Rosemont, Chicago (Wicker Park, Bucktown, Rogers Park, Hyde Park, Chinatown), Aurora and Waukegan, Ill.

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