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District Court of Maryland Rejects Vicarious Liability for Actions Beyond Scope of Employment and Denies Punitive Damages Absent Evidence of “Actual Malice”
Sally Haeger v. Target Corp., et al.
In Haeger v. Target Corp., the United States District Court for the District of Maryland held that an employer is not vicariously liable for an employee’s malicious actions against a third party when those actions are outside the scope of employment. Granting the Motion for Partial Summary Judgment in favor of Defendant, Target Corporation (“Target”), the Court opined that an employee’s purposeful and malicious striking of Target customers with shopping carts was not authorized conduct for which Target may be held vicariously liable. The Court also determined that without more substantial clear and convincing evidence of actual malice, it was doubtful that the injured consumer would be entitled to punitive damages against the employee.
This tort action arose from an incident that occurred at a store owned and operated by Target in Baltimore County, Maryland. Plaintiff, Sally Haeger (“Haeger”), visited the Target store with her stepfather. Haeger alleges that prior to entering the store, she approached an employee in the parking lot while he was pushing a line of shopping carts. The employee was David Howard (“Howard”). Haeger asked if Howard would provide her with a cart, but Howard instructed her to obtain a cart from inside the store. She alleges that Howard seemed “agitated” and made physical gestures with his body. As Haeger retrieved the shopping cart from the store, Howard pushed the carts into the cart well, which caused the entire row to move forward and strike Haeger’s back. According to Haeger, the impact of the carts caused her to bleed and resulted in a herniated disc in her back. Howard completed a “Team Member Witness Statement” in which he admitted to bumping Haeger’s back while he was pushing the carts from the parking lot into the cart well, but denied that the act was intentional.
Haeger filed a complaint against Target in the Circuit Court for Baltimore County, alleging negligence, assault, and battery, and seeking punitive damages. Target removed the case to the United States District Court for the District of Maryland and filed a Motion for Partial Summary Judgment on the assault and punitive damages claims. Haeger voluntarily dismissed the assault claim. In support of its Motion for Partial Summary Judgment, Target claimed that there was insufficient evidence of actual malice on the part of Howard to entitle Haeger to punitive damages. Additionally, Target argued that even if the Court were to find actual malice, Target should not be held vicariously liable for Howard’s actions because they were outside the scope of his employment. The District Court concurred with both arguments.
First, Judge Nickerson articulated that to recover punitive damages in the state of Maryland, the plaintiff must establish by clear and convincing evidence the basis for an award of punitive damages, a heightened standard that may be attributed to the “penal nature” of punitive damages and their “potential for debilitating harm.” Moreoever, citing Owens–Illinois, Inc. v. Zenobia, 601 A.2d 633 (Md.1992), the Court stated that “[p]unitive damages are awarded in an attempt to punish a defendant whose conduct is characterized by evil motive, intent to injure, or fraud, and to warn others contemplating similar conduct of the serious risk of monetary liability.” Id. at 650. Therefore, “in order to recover punitive damages in any tort action in the State of Maryland, facts sufficient to show actual malice must be pleaded and proven by clear and convincing evidence.” Actual malice “exists if the conduct complained of was performed in such a way . . . to show that it . . . was influenced or motivated by hatred or spite or was performed in order to intentionally or deliberate[ly] injure or cause damage or loss to another person.” Market Tavern Inc. v. Bowen, 610 A.2d 295, 301 (Md. Ct. Spec. App. 1992).
In the instant case, the Court found insufficient evidence to suggest that Howard acted with “actual malice.” Howard did not admit to having any intention to injure Haeger. Additionally, according to a witness statement by one of Target’s employees, Howard had stated that the incident was an “accident.” Although Haeger argued that actual malice was evidenced by Howard’s agitated appearance just prior to the incident, the Court restated that this fact, alone, is not clear and convincing evidence of actual malice. Without more substantial clear and convincing evidence of actual malice, significantly beyond the preponderance standard necessary to establish liability for the tort, the Court found that Haeger would not be entitled to punitive damages.
Second, Judge Nickerson addressed Target’s vicarious liability. In Maryland, an employer may be held vicariously liable for “an employee’s tortious acts” if they “were within the scope of his employment.” Sawyer v. Humphries, 587 A.2d 467, 470 (Md. 1991). The general test for determining if an employee acted within the scope of his employment “is whether [the employee’s actions] were in furtherance of the employer’s business and were ‘authorized’ by the employer.” Id. Thus, “where an employee's actions are personal . . . [or] where they represent a departure from the purpose of furthering the employer’s business . . . even if during normal duty hours and at an authorized locality, the employee’s actions are outside the scope of his employment.” Id. at 471.
Here, the Court determined that if Howard used the shopping carts to maliciously and intentionally injure Haeger, he acted outside the scope of his employment. Striking and injuring customers in no way furthers Target’s business, especially as the customer in question was not, herself, engaging in any type of dangerous or illegal activity with which Howard was attempting to interfere when he struck her with the carts. Thus, the act was not authorized by Target and was not incident to Howard’s duties. The Court added that even if actual malice could be clearly proven by Howard's behavior, Target could not be held vicariously liable for his actions which were outside the scope of his employment. For these reasons, the District Court granted Target’s motion for partial summary judgment.
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