Undertaking background investigations may be critical in defending "negligent hiring" claim

Undertaking background investigations may be critical in defending "negligent hiring" claim Murray v SUNY Research Foundation, 283 AD2d 995 The Murray case illustrates some of the factors that courts consider in resolving cases involving allegations that the employer was guilty of "negligence" in selecting a particular individual for employment based on an allegation that the employer should have conducted a more intensive investigation of the individual's background than was actually made. Teresa Murray sued the SUNY Research Foundation [Foundation] and the Rochester City School District [District] after she learned that her son was sexually assaulted over a period of months by an employee of the Foundation. The Research Foundation had employed the individual to coordinate the Educational Talent Search program in the District's school that Murray's son attended. The alleged sexual abuse took place during regular school hours. Murray's son, however, was not enrolled in the Educational Talent Search program coordinated by the Research Foundation's employee. The Appellate Division, Fourth Department, sustained a Supreme Court justice's granting the Foundation's motion for summary judgment. It said that the Foundation satisfied its initial burden by establishing, as a matter of law, that it was not negligent in hiring or retaining the individual, and that Murray failed to raise any issue of fact. According to the ruling, the Foundation introduced evidence demonstrating that it interviewed the employee extensively and obtained written references prior to its hiring him. Finding that the procedures followed by the Foundation revealed nothing that would lead a reasonably prudent person to suspect that he had "dangerous propensities" to sexually abuse children, the court concluded that the Foundation had "no duty to investigate further" before hiring" the employee. The Appellate Division based its conclusion on the fact that there was no evidence in the record to show that a routine background check would have revealed that the employee had a propensity to harm children. Another defendant, the Rochester City School District, also asked the trial court to dismiss Murray's complaint against it. Its motion was denied. Sustaining the lower court's ruling, the Appellate Division said the Supreme Court justice properly denied the motion of the District seeking summary judgment dismissing the complaint against it. The court explained that the District has "the duty to exercise the same degree of care and supervision over the pupils under its control as a reasonably prudent parent would exercise under the same circumstances." The standard for determining whether this duty was breached: "would a parent of ordinary prudence placed in the identical situation and armed with the same information invariably have provided greater supervision." The court rejected the District's claim that it could not be held liable without actual or constructive notice of the employee's behavior. According to the ruling, "the criminal intervention of third parties may, however, be a 'reasonably foreseeable' consequence of circumstances created by the defendant." The operative factor here: Murray's son was permitted to meet alone with the coordinator of a program in which he was not enrolled, in a room with a closed door, in violation of school policy.

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