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Toothman v. Hardee's Food Systems Inc.

April 20, 1999

CONNIE TOOTHMAN, GENNIFER DISMUKE, NENA SHERROD, AND KRISTA BOARDMAN, PLAINTIFFS-APPELLEES,
v.
HARDEE'S FOOD SYSTEMS, INC., JUDY ROCHFORD, AND KIM THOMPSON, DEFENDANTS-APPELLANTS.



Appeal from the Circuit Court of Saline County. No. 94-L-37 Honorable Bruce D. Stewart, Judge, presiding.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice HOPKINs

IN THE COURT OF APPEALS OF THE STATE OF ILLINOIS

Defendants, Hardee's Food Systems, Inc. (Hardee's), Judy Rochford, and Kim Thompson, appeal from the trial court's entry of judgments on jury verdicts in favor of plaintiffs, Connie Toothman, Gennifer Dismuke, Nena Sherrod, and Krista Boardman. The action arises out of a strip search of plaintiffs, employees of the Harrisburg Hardee's, conducted by Judy and Kim, managers of the Harrisburg Hardee's. The issues we decide are (1) whether plaintiffs' claims of false imprisonment, assault, and battery are barred as to Hardee's by the exclusivity provisions of the Workers' Compensation Act (the Act) (820 ILCS 305/1 et seq. (West 1996)), (2) whether the trial court erred when it instructed the jury regarding the elements of false imprisonment, assault, and battery, (3) whether the jury's awards of compensatory damages were against the manifest weight of the evidence, (4) whether the trial court erred by allowing the jury to consider the issue of punitive damages as to Hardee's, and (5) whether the amount of punitive damages was excessive as to any of the defendants. We affirm.

BACKGROUND

On December 2, 1992, all four plaintiffs worked at the Hardee's restaurant in Harrisburg, Illinois. Plaintiffs were crew leaders with access to the safe where the petty cash was secured. At about 2 p.m., Kim, the assistant manager, counted the money in the safe as part of her regular duties and found that $50 was missing. Kim reported the missing money to Judy, the store's general manager. Judy also found $50 missing.

In an attempt to find the missing money, Judy and Kim searched each plaintiff. Each plaintiff testified that she was taken individually into a small, windowless, locked room and was ordered to remove all clothing, except for her underwear. Judy and Kim testified that they only requested plaintiffs to empty their pockets and remove their shoes and socks. Judy and Kim did not find the money on any of the plaintiffs, and they later discovered that there was a bank error and that no money was actually missing from the store safe.

On June 6, 1994, plaintiffs filed their complaint for false imprisonment and assault and battery, naming Hardee's, Kim, and Judy as defendants. None of the plaintiffs sought benefits under the Act. On July 25, 1994, Hardee's filed its answer and affirmative defenses, claiming that each plaintiff was contributorily at fault. On the same date, Hardee's filed a motion to dismiss, alleging the failure to state a cause of action.

On September 23, 1994, Hardee's filed a motion for leave to file an amended response to plaintiffs' complaint and an amended motion to dismiss, alleging that the Act provided the exclusive remedy for plaintiffs and that their action at common law was therefore barred. On November 7, 1994, the trial court denied the original motion to dismiss, filed on July 25, 1994, and granted Hardee's leave to file amended affirmative defenses.

On January 31, 1995, Hardee's filed amended affirmative defenses alleging as follows: (1) the Act provides plaintiffs' exclusive remedy, (2) plaintiffs failed to state a cause of action, and (3) the "conduct of Hardee's" was protected by the Criminal Code of 1961 (720 ILCS 5/16A- 5 (West 1994)). On August 31, 1995, Hardee's filed a motion for summary judgment, alleging that the Act provided plaintiffs' exclusive remedy.

On September 19, 1995, plaintiffs filed a response to Hardee's motion for summary judgment, arguing that Hardee's gave Judy and Kim complete authority over the Harrisburg Hardee's, which made Judy and Kim either plaintiffs' employers or at least the alter egos of Hardee's. On September 27, 1995, the trial court denied Hardee's motion for summary judgment.

The jury trial began on August 21, 1997. Each plaintiff testified about the details of the strip search. Briefly stated, that evidence consisted of the following: Both Judy and Kim knew that bank errors had been responsible for money missing from the Harrisburg Hardee's prior to December 2, 1992, yet neither of them checked with the bank before insisting that their employees disrobe in front of them. Each plaintiff testified that neither Judy nor Kim asked her if she had the missing money or if she knew anything about it. Nena testified that Judy told her that if she did not submit to the strip search in front of Judy and Kim, then the Harrisburg police would conduct the search, implying to Nena that if she did not allow the female managers to strip-search her, then male police officers would search her instead. Each plaintiff testified that Judy acted very angry before and during the search and that she was afraid that Judy would physically force her to disrobe if she did not do so herself.

Krista testified that she told Judy that her shift was over and that she needed to leave to pick up her child at daycare. Krista stated that Judy responded by picking up a thick folder, slamming it down on her desk, and screaming that she did not care where Krista had to go, because until the money was found, no one was going anywhere. Connie testified that the managers not only forced her to take off her outer clothing but also forced her to unsnap her bra and shake it out and to pull her underwear down around her knees. Krista testified that the managers forced her to strip down to her underwear, pull out her bra and shake it, pull out the crotch of her underwear and shake it, and then turn around and do the same from behind. Each plaintiff testified that neither Judy nor Kim nor anyone else from Hardee's ever apologized.

We will set forth the remainder of the evidence adduced at trial in more detail as it pertains to the issues we decide. The jury returned verdicts in favor of plaintiffs and awarded each of them $25,000 in compensatory damages against all defendants, $200,000 in punitive damages against Hardee's, $375 in punitive damages against Judy, and $50 in punitive damages against Kim. The trial court entered judgments on the verdicts and denied defendants' posttrial motions. This appeal followed.

ISSUES

I. EXCLUSIVE APPLICATION OF THE WORKERS' COMPENSATION ACT

Hardee's argues that plaintiffs' claims are barred by the exclusivity provisions of the Act because plaintiffs' injuries were accidental, arose out of and were sustained during the course of their employment, and were compensable under the Act. The trial court found, as a matter of law, that the exclusivity provisions of the Act "are not applicable to this case" because plaintiffs' injuries are not compensable under the Act. Our review of the trial court's construction of the Act is de novo. See Bruso v. Alexian Brothers Hospital, 178 Ill. 2d 445, 452 (1997).

Section 5(a) of the Act provides as follows:

"No common law or statutory right to recover damages from the employer *** or the agents or employees [of the employer] for injury or death sustained by any employee while engaged in the line of his duty as such employee, other than the compensation herein provided, is available to any employee who ...


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