Delaware Supreme Court find that State police can be held liable for sexual misconduct of their officers

On September 12, 2013, the Delaware Supreme Court released its decision in Jane D.W. Doe v. State of Delaware. The issue before the Court was whether the State of Delaware could be held liable for the tortious acts (in this case a sexual assault) by an on-duty Delaware State Police Officer.

Under a theory known as respondeat superior a company or organization can be held liable for the torts that their employees do in the course of being an employee (e.g. a pizza delivery man rear-ends another car -the pizza company could be held liable for the accident the pizza delivery man caused since the accident happened in “the scope of employment”).

The lower court, reasoning that sexual misconduct is not in job description of of a police officer, granted summary judgment in favor of the State Police.

Justice Berger writing for the Delaware Supreme Court reversed the lower court decision and clarified what respondeat superior means stating, “The relevant test, however, is not whether Giddings’ [the police officer] was “‘within the ordinary course of the [employer] … but whether the service itself in which the tortious act was done was within the ordinary course of such business.’ Stated differently, the test is whether the employee was acting in the ordinary course of business during the time frame within which the tort was committed.” (Doe v. State, 2013 WL 5006496 * 2). The Court concluded that a jury could conclude that the defendant’s actions were foreseeable. (Id.)

This case may prove to be very helpful in the understanding the meaning of respondeat superior in Delaware. At the very least, it is a win for those who are victims of individuals who abuse their positions of trust and authority.

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