Pizza Hut not at fault for alleged attack by employee

Jessica M. Karmasek Jul. 26, 2011, 12:50pm


PIERRE, S.D. (Legal Newsline) - The South Dakota Supreme Court last week upheld a lower court's ruling in favor of popular restaurant chain Pizza Hut following an alleged attack by one of its employees.

In its July 20 opinion, the Court affirmed the decision of the Minnehaha County Circuit Court, which granted summary judgment for the pizza chain.

The plaintiff, David Iverson, alleged he was attacked by Pizza Hut employee Norman Williams at a restaurant in Sioux Falls, S.D. Iverson also had worked at the Pizza Hut, but eventually was fired for his inability to complete tasks.

Iverson filed suit against both Williams and Pizza Hut. He asserted four theories of liability: Vicarious liability under the doctrine of respondeat superior; negligent hiring; breach of duty to control an employee; and negligent supervision.

Justice Judith K. Meierhenry, who retired in June, authored the Court's 16-page opinion.

Meierhenry said the mere fact that the assault took place on Pizza Hut's property was not enough to make it liable under the doctrine of respondeat superior.

"Under these facts, the agency relationship was immaterial to Williams's tort. Williams could have accomplished his tort in any number of public or private buildings," she wrote.

As to the negligent hiring, the Court agreed with the pizza chain that Williams' responsibilities at the time he was hired did not require further inquiry into his background.

When Williams interviewed for the position of utility worker, he told the manager that he was on parole for a felony conviction in Colorado and that his conviction involved a gang-related incident of "mutual combat resulting in serious injury." At the time, the manager inquired no further into his criminal history because the position was nonmanagerial.

"At the time Pizza Hut hired Williams, his anticipated responsibilities were cutting and preparing pizzas in the back of Pizza Hut away from the public. Even though Williams worked only a short distance from customers and potentially could have contact with customers, that contact was only incidental to his job," the Court wrote.

"Because at the time Williams was hired he was only to have incidental contact with the public, Pizza Hut did not have a duty to inquire further into Williams's background."

The Court said Iverson's theory of duty to control also falls short.

Under the theory, Iverson must show foreseeability in that Pizza Hut "kn(ew) or ha(d) reason to know that (it) had the ability to control (Williams), and (knew or should have known) of the necessity and opportunity for exercising such control," the Court noted.

"The only circumstance Iverson can point to as evidence of foreseeability is Williams's parole status for a violent, gang-related felony. Except for Williams's felony conviction, there was no evidence that Williams ever displayed violent tendencies while employed at Pizza Hut. In fact, Williams was a model employee," the Court wrote.

"Further, Iverson and Williams worked together peacefully and remained friends after Iverson was fired. One could not conclude, based on the surrounding facts and circumstances, that Williams's attack of Iverson was 'within the class of reasonably foreseeable hazards.'"

The Court also shot down Iverson's final theory, negligent supervision.

"Here, Iverson cites Williams's parole status and the presence of Pizza Hut's manager as support for his negligent supervision claim. Iverson apparently contends that Pizza Hut's alleged negligent conduct was allowing Iverson and Johnson to be in the back of Pizza Hut with Williams. But at the time Iverson was injured, it was not foreseeable that Williams would attack Iverson," it wrote.

"As discussed in the duty to control issue, Williams's parole status did not make it sufficiently foreseeable that he would attack Iverson. Iverson's walk past the manager similarly did not make it sufficiently foreseeable that Williams would attack him. The manager's presence does not alter our foreseeability analysis."

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