News & Insights

Case Against Church Dismissed for Failing to Show Negligent Hiring or Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress

The New York State Child Victims Act created a one-year window for victims of sexual abuse to bring a lawsuit against any responsible parties even though the statute of limitations had already expired. As a result of the law, a large number of cases have been filed, including many against religious institutions based on their alleged complicity in hiring or retaining an abuser as an employee. However, the law does not make it easier to prove a claim. As demonstrated in a recent decision involving a suit by a child victim of a clergyman, plaintiffs must still allege all elements of their claim in order to hold a church or anyone else liable for negligent hiring or intentional infliction of emotional distress.

In Jane Rowe v. Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society of the Protestant Episcopal Church, et al., the Plaintiff alleged she was the victim of a brutal attack by a clergyman when she was 7 years of age. As permitted by the Child Victims Act, she filed a lawsuit against the church that employed the clergyman, the diocese and a missionary society for negligent hiring and retention of an employee, intentional infliction of emotional distress and negligent infliction of emotional distress. 

The Defendants moved to dismiss Plaintiff’s Complaint on the ground that the Complaint failed to adequately set forth allegations that would establish any of the three claims. The lower Court agreed to dismiss the claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress, but allowed the other two claims to move forward. The Defendants appealed. 

The New York Appellate Division, Second Department reversed the lower Court decision finding that the Plaintiff failed to set forth a claim for either negligent hiring and retention or intentional infliction of emotional distress. 

With respect to the claim of negligent hiring and retention of an employee, the Second Department decision reiterated that the “employer’s negligence lies in having placed the employee in a position to cause foreseeable harm, harm which most probably would have been spared the injured party had the employer taken reasonable care in making decisions respecting the hiring and retention of such employee.  [Citation omitted.]”  Further, there must be some connection between the Defendant’s negligence in hiring and retaining the offending employee and the Plaintiff’s injuries. The Court found that the Plaintiff had failed to allege such a connection, especially since the assault occurred far from the Defendant’s premises. Moreover, the Complaint contained no allegation that the Plaintiff had any prior contact with the alleged attacker, any prior relationship with any of the Defendants or any knowledge that the attacker was employed by any of the Defendants at the time of the assault. As such, the Court found that there was no nexus between Defendant’s employment of the attacker and the assault of the Plaintiff and dismissed the claim based upon negligent hiring and retention.

In dismissing the claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress, the Court found that the Complaint failed to allege a causal connection between Plaintiff’s injuries and the allegedly outrageous conduct of the Defendants. To assert a claim based upon intentional infliction of emotional distress, the plaintiff must allege extreme and outrageous conduct by a defendant and either an intent to cause or the disregard of a substantial likelihood of causing severe emotional distress to Plaintiff. The Second Department found that even after providing Plaintiff with every possible favorable inference, the Complaint failed to allege a causal connection between Plaintiff’s injuries and the conduct of the Defendants. 

It is interesting to note that the Plaintiff did not name the alleged attacker as a defendant although the decision is unclear as to why she chose not to do so.

The lesson to be learned is that a plaintiff must assert allegations which establish all the elements of its causes of action to withstand a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim.  

Should you wish to discuss a potential claim you may have, or which has been made against you, please contact one of our litigation attorneys.