Church Not Liable to Plaintiff for Assault/Battery by Employee’s Husband

In Rodriguez v Judge and Community Church of Astoria, 2015 NY Slip Op 07828 [132 AD3d 966] (App. Div. 2nd Dept. Oct. 28, 2015), the court explained and applied the well-known tort doctrine of “respondeat superior”, under which an employer is liable for the torts of its employees.

Here are the (briefly-summarized) facts of this personal injury case: While on a public sidewalk outside the defendant Community Church of Astoria (hereinafter the church), plaintiff was a pedestrian passing by when he became involved in an altercation with Edward Judge, who was accompanying his wife, church treasurer Rhonda Judge, to church services. After the dispute became physical, Edward hit the plaintiff in the face or head with a metal gate pole he obtained from the church premises.

Plaintiff sued Mr. Judge and the church, “alleging that the church was vicariously liable for Rhonda’s alleged encouragement and facilitation of the alleged assault and battery and for Edward’s conduct as an agent of his wife and of the church, and that the church negligently failed to prevent Edward from accessing the gate pole to use in the alleged battery.”

The motion court granted the church’s motion for summary judgment, and the Second Department affirms.

The law, as summarized by the court:

The doctrine of respondeat superior renders an employer vicariously liable for torts committed by an employee acting in furtherance of the employer’s business and within the scope of employment. An employee’s actions fall within the scope of employment where the purpose in performing such actions is ‘to further the employer’s interest, or to carry out duties incumbent upon the employee in furthering the employer’s business. [T]he employer may be liable when the employee acts negligently or intentionally, so long as the tortious conduct is generally foreseeable and a natural incident of the employment. Conversely, where an employee’s actions are taken for wholly personal reasons, which are not job related, his or her conduct cannot be said to fall within the scope of employment.

Applying the law, the court held that the church was not vicariously liable for Edward’s actions:

[T]he church made a prima facie showing of entitlement to judgment as a matter of law dismissing the cause of action alleging assault and battery, insofar as asserted against it, by demonstrating that Rhonda was not acting in furtherance of church business and within the scope of her duties as church treasurer at the time of the incident[.] … [T]he evidence established that Rhonda was involved in a personal dispute between her husband and the plaintiff, and was not acting in furtherance of church business and within the scope of her duties as church treasurer, when she allegedly directed her husband to assault and batter the plaintiff and allegedly provided him with access to the gate pole. Therefore, the plaintiff’s contention that Rhonda, through her actions, made her husband a sub-agent of the church is without merit. The church cannot be liable for the conduct of Edward, who was not an employee or agent of the church. For the same reasons, the plaintiff failed to establish his prima facie entitlement to judgment as a matter of law on the issue of liability on this cause of action insofar as asserted against the church.

It also held that the church owed no duty to the plaintiff, since “it did not have the necessary authority or ability to exercise the requisite control over Edward’s conduct so as to give rise to a duty to control his conduct for the protection of off-premises pedestrians” and “did not owe a duty to the plaintiff to prevent the misuse of its property for a criminal purpose, particularly since it had no authority to control Edward’s conduct.”

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