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Joyce Little-Thomas was recovering from respiratory treatment at Select Specialty Hospital in 2009 when she was sexually assaulted and raped by Warren Butler, a certified nursing assistant at the facility. Little-Thomas sued the Augusta-based hospital for negligent hiring, retention, and supervision of Butler, on the grounds that the hospital knew he could be a danger to patients and did nothing.
Her lawsuit was finally settled last month, on the eve of trial, with Select Specialty paying an undisclosed amount to avoid a trial. So how is the hospital on the hook for its employees' actions? Here's a look.
Hospitals and Vicarious Liability
Butler pleaded guilty to rape in March 2010, so there was no question whether the assault occurred. The question would be whether Select Specialty was liable as his employer. The doctrine of vicarious liability holds that employers in certain circumstances can be liable for the negligent or purposeful acts of their employees. And hospitals, which are responsible for hiring and supervising their medical staff, even nurse's aides, could be held liable for negligent supervision or retention if their staff injures a patient.
The crux of the lawsuit claimed Select Specialty was on notice regarding Butler's inappropriate conduct towards patients, citing several past examples:
Little-Thomas's lawsuit was initially dismissed for lack of evidence, but reinstated last year with a judge determining that the jury should decide whether prior reports of Butler's behavior and conditions at Select Specialty were credible. But Select Specialty settled with Little-Thomas right before trial, perhaps in an effort to avoid bad publicity.
The judge in the case was also considering sanctions against Select and its legal team for falsely claiming that there was no evidence of any prior rape or sexual assault claims, other than Little-Thomas's. The amount of the settlement remains undisclosed.