NM Supreme Court: Prison guard’s employers are vicariously liable for sexual assaults on inmates

Anthony Townes, a guard at a privately-operated prison, used his power to rape several female inmates. He pled guilty to criminal charges arising from those assaults (and, hopefully, will spend a long time in prison himself).

The inmates sued in federal court, and a jury awarded them compensatory and punitive damages. On appeal, the Tenth Circuit asked the New Mexico Supreme Court whether, in cases where a corrections officer sexually assaults an inmate, the defense of comparative fault allows a jury to compare the employer’s alleged negligence with the inmate’s alleged fault.

Justice Daniels’ opinion answers that question in the negative. While an employer is generally not liable for an employee’s intentional tort under principles of respondeat superior, under the “aided-in-agency” theory, an employer may be liable without fault where the employee’s commission of the tort was aided by the agency relationship.

The Court recognized that this theory is subject to abuse, since there are many situations “in which the commission of a tort is facilitated by the tortfeasor’s employment.” The Court therefore limited this theory to “cases where an employee has by reason of his employment substantial power or authority to control important elements of a vulnerable tort victim’s life or livelihood.” Whether the theory is appropriate in a given case is a question of law for the trial court.

The opinion is Spurlock v. Townes.

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