Friday, February 20, 2009

Court Upholds Sexual Harassment Verdict Against Duke

Raleigh attorney Brent Adams has posted the following at All emphases in Adams’ post are mine. I offer a few comments below the star line.

Adams begins - - -

The North Carolina Supreme Court has upheld a $500,000 jury verdict against Duke University for ratifying a worker’s sexual harassment of another employee.

According to the evidence at trial the plaintiff began working at a division of Duke University’s medical center in 1991. She claimed that a co-worker embarked on an eight-month campaign of harassing behavior which included inappropriate sexual touching, graphic drawings, and obscene language.

Duke University never imposed any significant discipline on the sexual harasser even after the plaintiff reported the problem to her supervisor and personnel officials. A division head stepped in later and transferred the plaintiff to another department in March of 1992.

The plaintiff offered proof at trial that as a result of the harassment she suffered a variety of ailments including crying spells, vomiting, headaches, nightmares, and insomnia. She was diagnosed with depression and post traumatic stress disorder.

The jury found that Dixon, the harasser, committed a battery upon the plaintiff and that the plaintiff was entitled to recover $100 for that battery. In addition, the jury found that Dixon initially caused the plaintiff severe emotional distress and
that Duke University ratified Dixon’s actions. The jury awarded the plaintiff $100,000 in compensatory damages for her emotional distress claim.

On the plaintiff’s punitive damages claim the jury required the defendant Dixon to pay $5,000 and required Duke University to pay the plaintiff $500,000 in punitive damages.

Both defendants appealed and the issue of the punitive damages claim against Duke University was recently decided by the North Carolina Supreme Court.

Duke University argued that the punitive damages liability against it, as an employer could not exceed the punitive damages awarded against Dixon, the employee.

The Supreme Court disagreed, writing “The objective of compensatory damages is to restore the plaintiff to his original condition or to make the plaintiff whole.” The amount of damages required to restore the plaintiff to his original condition or to make the plaintiff whole is the same, not withstanding ratification by the employer.

Punitive damages, on the other hand, are not necessarily intended to restore the plaintiff to his original condition or to make the plaintiff whole. It may take a different amount of money to deter or punish an employer-defendant like Duke than it would to deter an employee-defendant like Dixon.

“An employer who has ratified an employee’s tortious conduct should not be allowed to use it’s employee-limited financial resources as a shield against additional punitive damages.”

The facts in this case occurred in 1992. If those same facts occurred today, the punitive damages against Duke University would have been limited to $300,300.

Under a new law enacted by the General Assembly, punitive damages cannot exceed three times actual or compensatory damages or $250,000 whichever is greater.

In this case, the victim’s compensatory damages were $100,100.


My thanks first to Brent Adams for a clearly written, organized account of the case and explanation of what the court decided and why.

Many of you following the federal suits brought against Duke by victims of the Duke/Durham frame-up attempt and its ongoing cover-up must be shaking your heads and thinking: “Duke Medical Center’s mishandling of this case is in at least one important respect identical to its mishandling in the lacrosse case: In both cases supervisory personnel acted in ways that made an already bad situation much worse.”

I agree.

Today was my first visit to I was impressed. Here’s part of its self-description - - -

InjuryBoard is a growing community of personal injury law firms, attorneys, safety industry experts, and consumer advocates committed to making a difference by helping people avoid injury, and to helping those who are injured get the assistance they need to move on with their lives after an accident.

Along with its own national safety and injury news reporting team, provides visitors with up-to-date regional safety and injury news, along with legal analysis from its nationwide network of more than 500 injury attorneys at 100 different law firms.

You can read the entire description here.

Hat tip: Ed in NY


Anonymous said...

My experience wih sexual harassment claims in my company leads me to think that front line supervisors often make things worse when something occurs in their department. My first time around I sure did.

Anonymous said...


It seems only appropriate that Duke should be of the receiving end of one of their championed gender/class/race laws. It's long overdue.

Looking forward, I think the stage has been set for the mother of all punitive damage awards.


JWM said...

Anon @ 7:35,

Thank you for a thoughtful comment.


I think you're right if it goes past a trial to a finding the students were wronged in which case damages will be awarded.

Thank you both.