In the early morning hours of December 21, 2016, a 17-year-old employee of a Dairy Queen franchise in Fayette, Missouri, took his own life. Following his death, the Howard County coroner made an inquest into the cause of his death. After hearing six hours of testimony from almost 20 witnesses, an empaneled jury recommended felony involuntary manslaughter charges be filed against Harley Branham, his manager at the restaurant.
Between September 2016 and his death in December, it was alleged the employee was the subject of extreme harassment and bullying from Branham while employed at the restaurant. Witnesses testified that Branham threw a hamburger at him, forced him to scrub the floor while lying on his stomach, and subjected him to derogatory name calling, among other things. The jury believed that such conduct, coupled with the years of bullying he received at school, was the reason the young man committed suicide.
While the jury recommended Branham be indicted and charged with the felony, it also found that Dairy Queen was negligent in failing to properly train its employees. The jury also found that Dairy Queen had a responsibility to prevent bullying of its workers by educating its staff on the subject. While no criminal charges will be filed against the employer, the jury’s finding does pave the way for a potential wrongful death suit against it.
This case demonstrates that regardless of the short duration of an individual’s employment, if severe bullying occurs in the workplace, jurors are willing to hold both the bully and the employer responsible. This jury believed that Dairy Queen had not only the ability, but also the responsibility, to prevent the behavior of its manager. By not offering effective training on bullying and harassment, they found that the employer was negligent in a manner that ultimately led to Suttner’s suicide.
Employers are reminded once again that they must provide training to employees at all levels of their organizations on how to identify, prevent, and address bullying and harassment in the workplace. Failing to take these necessary steps can lead to serious consequences.
The St. Louis employment attorneys at McMahon Berger have been representing employers across the country in labor and employment matters for over sixty years, and are available to discuss these issues and others. As always, the foregoing is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice regarding any particular situation as every situation must be evaluated on its own facts. The choice of a lawyer is an important decision and should not be based solely on advertisements.