Supreme Court to weigh responsibility for sexual harassment by supervisors Florida lifeguard case could establish precedent limiting employer liability

November 15, 1997|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court agreed yesterday to decide when an employer will be held legally responsible for sexual harassment by its supervisors.

The court chose a case involving male supervisors of female lifeguards on a Florida beach for a potentially precedent-setting decision on sexual discrimination on the job.

Lower courts are divided over the responsibility of companies in the private sector and agencies in the public sector for harassment by their employees, including supervisors. In the Florida case, a federal appeals court made it far more difficult to blame a company for the misconduct of supervisors.

Overall, it has been easier for workers to win harassment claims against the employer when a supervisor, rather than a co-worker, has been involved. Misconduct by a co-worker can be ascribed to the employer only when there is clear proof that the employer knew of it and did nothing to correct it.

In the Florida lifeguard case, however, the appeals court said that management is liable only when the harassment was authorized by the employer, was committed by the supervisor in the course of normal duties or was something the employer had been told about.

Even if the misconduct pervades the workplace, the appeals court said, that is not necessarily proof that it is the fault of management. Even if supervisors at the next-highest level were informed, that is not sufficient, because the complaint must go to top management, the appeals court said.

The case was taken to the Supreme Court by a Boca Raton woman, Beth Ann Faragher, who worked as an ocean lifeguard for the city recreation department. Her lawsuit, based on federal civil rights law, claimed that two captains of lifeguards repeatedly used offensive language and sexual touches and gestures toward the female guards.

She won $10,500 in damages against the city of Boca Raton, but the appeals court said the city was not responsible.

The Supreme Court will hear her case in February and issue a decision by next summer. This is the second sexual harassment case the court will decide this term. In the other, it will rule on whether sexual harassment can occur between workers of the same sex.

In a second action yesterday, the court agreed to decide whether boat manufacturers may be sued for on-water accidents in which someone is hurt or killed after being struck by a propeller.

A Georgia lawsuit, which targets Brunswick Corp., a manufacturer of motorboat engines, claims that the company was at fault for failing to install a guard on its propellers. A federal appeals court, however, ruled that such lawsuits based on state law are barred because the Coast Guard decided in 1990 that propeller guards are not needed for safety.

The case grows out of the death of a 19-year-old Oklahoma woman, Kathryn Lewis, in June 1993 on a lake near Augusta, Ga. Lewis fell out of a power boat when it made a sharp turn. She was killed instantly when she was hit in the head and upper body by the propeller.

Her parents sued Brunswick, claiming under state law that the company's failure to install a guard on the propeller made the motor a defective product. Brunswick had the case transferred to federal court, arguing that the 1971 Boat Safety Act barred all such state law claims.

The appeals court ruled that any Coast Guard decision that a particular safety device is not needed on boats is the last word on the subject legally.

Pub Date: 11/15/97

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