Can an employer be liable for wrongful death by failing to investigate an employee's email threats to murder his family? The Illinois Appellate Court recently ruled that the answer may be "yes" based on the employer's allegedly failing to follow its electronic communications policy and investigate the employee's murderous threats generated on the employer's computer system.
In Regions Bank v. Joyce Meyer Ministries, Inc., 2014 IL App (5th) 130193, the Court found that given such allegations, a wrongful death complaint against the employer should have survived a motion to dismiss and proceeded to discovery. The Court commented: "Accepting the allegations as true, it may be reasonable to infer that [employer] JMM increased the risk of harm to the decedents by failing to conduct an adequate investigation of its own communications systems and equipment, essentially electing to remain ignorant of facts concerning the source of the threats, when a reasonable person may have conducted an internal investigation of its systems and equipment." Id. at ¶21.
Facts Alleged in Wrongful Death Complaint
Christopher Coleman was employed by Joyce Meyer Ministries, Inc. (JMM) in its security department from 2000 through May 2009. During this time, JMM enacted an electronic communications policy that prohibited JMM employees from using JMM's computer systems and equipment to generate inappropriate or harassing emails. In the policy, JMM asserted its right to monitor and inspect all emails sent, received or stored on JMM's computer systems and equipment. JMM management was responsible for disciplining employees who, in management's sole discretion, violated JMM's policy.
From November 2008 through May 2009, Coleman allegedly used his JMM-issued computer to generate emails making death threats directed at himself, his wife and their children. On May 5, 2009, Coleman murdered his wife and children. Following Coleman's conviction for the murders and life sentence, the administrator of the decedents' estates sued JMM, alleging claims including wrongful death of decedents and negligent retention of Coleman. The trial court dismissed the complaint, and the estates appealed.
Appellate Court Ruling
Not surprisingly, the Appellate Court affirmed dismissal of the estates' negligent retention claim, finding insufficient facts alleged to show that Coleman's "misuse of his position of employment" or his "misuse of the employer's chattel, a computer, was a substantial factor in bringing about the harm to the decedents." Id. at ¶26. But the Appellate Court reserved dismissal of the wrongful death claim. The Court determined the key issue was whether the estates alleged facts sufficient to show that JMM voluntarily undertook to protect the decedents from the criminal acts of a third person. Under the voluntary undertaking doctrine, an employer may be liable if it voluntarily undertakes to provide services to another and negligently performs its voluntary undertaking. Under settled Illinois law, a claim for misfeasance in performing a voluntary undertaking can be stated by alleging facts establishing: (i) defendant voluntarily undertook to provide services necessary to protect another person or took charge of another person's protection; (ii) defendant negligently performed the undertaking; and (iii) defendant's negligence increased the risk of harm to the other person. Id. at ¶13.
The Appellate Court applied this legal standard to find that JMM's electronic communications policy could constitute a voluntary undertaking to protect the decedents. Based on this premise, the Court found the complaint sufficient to show: (a) JMM allegedly failed to investigate or negligently investigated the source of the death threats despite knowing that the threats directed at Coleman and his family were "made or received from JMM's electronic communications systems and equipment"; and (b) "JMM's negligent acts or omissions increased the risk of danger to the decedents." Id. at ¶19.
The Appellate Court held, without addressing the merits of the case, that the allegations of the estates' complaint were sufficient to survive a motion to dismiss because the threats were specific, allegedly made from Coleman's JMM-issued computer, and JMM supposedly knew or should have known of the threats and protected decedents.
Lessons for Employers
It is unclear whether the Appellate Court's decision would stand were it subsequently reviewed by the Illinois Supreme Court. Nonetheless, the decision provides several noteworthy lessons for employers, including:
The case suggests that if JMM had complied with its electronic communications policy and thoroughly investigated the source of the murderous threats, dismissal of the wrongful death claim may have been affirmed — perhaps even if the investigation results had been inconclusive. This emphasizes the importance of employers appropriately investigating all threats of violence received by or generated from the employer's computer system.
The Appellate Court inferred from JMM's electronic communications policy that it meant to assume legally enforceable obligations to both monitor employees' emails and protect non-employees. Employers who do not intend to assume such obligations may consider reviewing their internal policies and making modifications appropriate to negate such inferences.