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Poole v. Copland Inc.

May 08, 1998


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Webb, Justice

On discretionary review pursuant to N.C.G.S. § 7A-31 of a unanimous decision of the Court of Appeals, 125 N.C. App. 235, 481 S.E.2d 88 (1997), awarding defendant Copland, Inc. a new trial and reversing a judgment entered by Hudson, J., on 16 November 1994, in Superior Court, Alamance County. Heard in the Supreme Court 17 November 1997.

In this action, the plaintiff sued John Haynes for intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress. She sued Copland, Inc., her former employer, for ratification of Haynes' conduct, negligent retention and supervision of Haynes, and imputed liability.

The plaintiff testified that during a one-year period while she was working for defendant Copland, she was intimidated on many occasions by defendant Haynes, a fellow worker. On one occasion, they were discussing the relative merits of Camaro and Mustang automobiles when Haynes told the plaintiff she "looked like the type of person that needed somebody to go up inside [her] about two car lengths deep." The plaintiff asked Haynes not to talk to her in that way. She reported the incident to her supervisor, Bill White.

The plaintiff testified to numerous other similar incidents, including an occasion when Haynes asked the plaintiff if she was happily married and whether she had "had a man lately." Haynes told her: "You haven't had a man until you've had me. . . . I've got twelve inches hanging." Another time, the plaintiff turned around to find Haynes standing behind her with his pants unzipped. She asked Haynes what he was doing, and he replied: "Well, I was going to show you what a real man felt like . . . ." Later, Haynes told her that once she "had" him, she would never go back to her husband. She testified he told her that her husband, Kevin, "had better hold tight to me at night because [Haynes] would slide in right beside of Kevin and f--- my eyes out and make Kevin like it." Although the plaintiff reported these incidents to White, he told her that Haynes "was just a youngun', to ignore him," and that Haynes "was only picking."

Haynes asked the plaintiff if she was a natural redhead and said: "There's not but one way for me to find out that you're a true redhead . . . . I just need to see your p---y hair." Haynes asked the plaintiff if she gave "blow jobs." On another occasion, the plaintiff and several others were in White's office when Haynes grabbed his crotch and asked her: "[H]ave you made up your mind whether or not you want some of this or not?" The plaintiff told White: "Bill, you see. You see I'm not lying. Why do you let this go on?" According to the plaintiff, White laughed, telling her to let it go and that Haynes was "just joking."

On the day before the last day she worked at Copland, the plaintiff was in the parking lot with her husband. Haynes was there. He grabbed his crotch and made an obscene gesture toward the plaintiff. The plaintiff reported this incident to her superiors. The next day, a meeting was held, with the plaintiff and Haynes in attendance. Also present were the plaintiff's superiors, including the president of the corporation. Haynes admitted that he had grabbed his crotch in the parking lot the previous day, and he was terminated at that meeting. The plaintiff's employment was terminated later that day.

The plaintiff testified that the harassment caused her to cry when she came home from work and that she had trouble sleeping and had nightmares. She said, "I got to where I couldn't eat. I was throwing up green phlegm all the time. My bowels wouldn't move." Her relationship with her husband also suffered.

The plaintiff also testified to a history of sexual abuse. As a child, she had been locked in a closet by a friend of her father's for two weeks, with her hands and feet bound with duct tape. The man took her out on several occasions to rape her. At the age of nine, she was sexually molested. She gave birth to an illegitimate child at the age of fifteen. She then married the child's father, a physically abusive drug addict, at the age of sixteen and divorced him when she was twenty-one years of age. An uncle sexually molested her when she was eighteen years of age. The plaintiff's father was an alcoholic who physically abused her and her mother and sister.

Two psychiatrists and a clinical psychologist testified for the plaintiff. They testified that the plaintiff was suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder, dissociative disorder, and depression. A posttraumatic stress disorder occurs when a person has had a traumatic experience, and he or she reexperiences the trauma again and again.

A dissociative disorder occurs when a person has had a bad experience and rather than being stored normally in the brain as a memory, it is broken into several parts and stored in the brain so the person does not remember it and does not have to face it. A traumatic experience can cause the parts to reunite, and the person then remembers the bad experience. This is called an abreaction or flashback.

The experts testified that the plaintiff had a dissociative disorder in regard to the experiences she had while growing up. The experiences at Copland had caused a flashback, and all the earlier experiences were remembered. This caused serious mental problems for the plaintiff. At the end of the evidence, the court dismissed all claims except the claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress against Haynes and the claims against Copland for ratification of Haynes' conduct and negligent retention of Haynes.

The jury awarded the plaintiff $2,000 in actual damages and $5,000 in punitive damages against Haynes. The jury awarded the plaintiff $50,000 in actual damages and $250,000 in punitive damages against Copland. Haynes did not appeal.

The Court of Appeals ordered a new trial for an error in the charge. We allowed petitions for discretionary review by both parties.

This case brings to the Court a question as to the application of the "thin skull" rule. This rule provides that if the defendant's misconduct amounts to a breach of duty to a person of ordinary susceptibility, he is liable for all damages suffered by the plaintiff notwithstanding the fact that these damages were unusually extensive because of the peculiar ...

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