A split-shift babysitting arrangement turns into abuse: is Acme liable?

A single mother working for Acme employs a split-shift coworker to care for her daughter after school. The arrangement turns into a lawsuit for Acme when the coworker abuses the child and the mother points the finger at her employer.

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For the past five years, Sharon Charalyke has been her family’s sole means of support after her husband skipped out on her and their two-year old daughter. Lacking anything that resembled a job history, this single mom knew it wasn’t going to be easy starting at square one in her quest for something resembling a sound economic reality.

With no serious expectation of ever receiving alimony or child support -- her ex seemed to have vanished from the face of the earth -- Sharon played the hand she was dealt. First, she sold the house and most of the furnishings to revive a savings account that vanished with him. Then, she rented a small apartment in the complex on the edge of town where her mother was trying to enjoy her golden years by playing shuffleboard with her neighbors and sitting in a favorite rocker in the lounge area. Sharon’s move made sense on two levels. It gave her ready access to competent child care directly across the courtyard and it gave her mom a new zest for life and the cherished opportunity to be with her granddaughter five or six days a week.

Her next priority was finding a job that paid enough to permit Sharon and her daughter to survive on current income without having to dip into the nest egg from the house sale. She promised herself she would never stop seeking opportunities to improve her financial lot in life. Having absolutely no interest in flipping burgers or waiting tables, Sharon searched aggressively for several weeks before landing the first job she had ever held as an adult.

She was hired as the assistant to a startup entrepreneur who was expecting to have at least moderate success manufacturing and selling the combination insect repellent/hand lotion/sun block he had developed in his basement lab a year earlier. Her work hours were flexible, perhaps somewhat erratic, the pay was ok and her boss was a nice guy who taught her a lot about databases and running a two-person, high-tech office. Both of them knew the venture was a gamble that would pay off quite nicely in the long run if all went well in the short run. Nevertheless, Sharon remained diligent about attending adult education classes and learning as many transferable skills as her position afforded, just in case the project tanked.

Together, Sharon and her boss struggled to keep the venture growing in accordance with the business plan. Sharon attributed the company’s demise two years later to the owner’s reluctance to purchase advertising space in relevant consumer and trade magazines.

With her budget once again reined back to survival mode, Sharon spent nearly six months in another intense job hunt, performed this time with much more confidence. The effort culminated in her walking through Acme’s front door for a job interview.

When Rudy Bayger, Acme’s maintenance manager, noticed the extensive database experience on Sharon’s resume, he wasted no time asking her to pay a visit. Acme would be commissioning a new computerized maintenance management system in about a month and its underlying database was the same one Sharon had been operating and customizing successfully for the entrepreneur. Rudy needed her skillset in the worst way. Most of his staff still struggled with the intricacies of the old, unsophisticated software that was on its way out. It was evident to him that they wouldn’t be able to turn maintenance data into actionable information very efficiently in the future.

She was exactly what Rudy and Acme needed. In addition to the new, higher salary, her working hours would be predictable, which was just what Sharon needed most at this stage of her nascent career. She found the new work exciting, the company was making a profit and she enjoyed working in an office full of people. Everything at Acme moved along at a much faster rate than it did at the entrepreneur’s office.

About the time Sharon was enjoying a well-deserved reputation as Acme’s database whiz, her mother began exhibiting age-related problems. Granny was getting confused easily and doing things that were out of character. The kicker was when her daughter called the office to say that Grandma was acting funny. She served only jelly beans and cold pancakes for an after-school snack. When the girl returned from the playground, Grandma refused to unlock the door because she didn’t recognize her own granddaughter.

The news spread rapidly through the office grapevine and more than a few employees offered Sharon suggestions and help finding day care for both of them. Her daughter was the easiest. A coworker, Ole Innfrei, lived in the same apartment complex where Sharon lived, but in a different building. Because he worked a split shift, he volunteered to watch Sharon’s daughter for the three hours between the time school let out and when Sharon arrived home. With that problem solved, getting help for Grandma required only a few phone calls.

But, as we know from other tales from the Acme annals, life is rarely that simple. Initially, things went smoothly for Sharon, but about a month later, her daughter inexplicably became moody and withdrawn. Nothing Sharon tried could snap the kid out of her funk. She didn’t want to go to school. She didn’t want to stay with Ole after school. She simply wanted to hide in her bedroom.

Three weeks later, the school’s principal called Sharon to report her suspicion. Based on some of the things the girl had been heard saying, there was a real risk that child abuse was occurring. That evening after dinner, Sharon questioned her daughter about the matter.

It was with great reluctance and many tears that the child revealed the truth. Sharon then realized that her daughter was sexually abused twice while in Ole’s care. The next morning her outrage exploded into pure rage when she learned what Rudy knew about Ole’s background and never said a word. A few years ago, the state department of corrections had contacted Rudy to inform him that Ole was a parolee who was convicted of attempted sexual battery of a minor.

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