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Wednesday, July 17, 2024 | Back issues
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Victim May Laugh Last After Cellphone Prank

(CN) - A trucking-company employee can sue his supervisors for posing his drunken, passed-out body for cell-phone pictures at a company retreat, the Arkansas Court of Appeals ruled.

David Coombs traveled to Kansas City in 2007 for a team-building retreat with his co-workers at J.B. Hunt Transport Inc.

The group attended a Kansas City Royals baseball game and then went to local bars and clubs. Coombs admitted that he had too much to drink.

He was almost arrested for urinating in the woods near the parking lot of a bar, but a co-worker convinced the police officer to let him go.

After Coombs fell asleep on the floor of his hotel room, his supervisors, Rich Allensworth and Mark Emerson, entered the room. Allensworth, Coombs' assigned roommate, wrote "help me" on Coombs' leg.

Emerson sprayed shaving cream on Coombs' leg and put a cigarette in Coombs' mouth before snapping cell-phone photos of Coombs.

Emerson called other employees, some of them women, into the room to witness Coombs on the floor.

Coombs claimed that he woke up naked and that Emerson later showed photos of Coombs in his underwear. After an internal company investigation, Hunt officials reprimanded Emerson and fired Allensworth.

Hunt reprimanded Coombs and cut his salary, but Coombs left the company and started his own trucking business.

He also sued Hunt, Allensworth and Emerson for invasion of privacy, outrage, wrongful discharge and negligent retention. The trial court ruled in the defendants' favor, but the Arkansas Court of Appeals said Coombs can bring his invasion of privacy claim to trial.

Judge Cliff Hoofman and his colleagues on the court rejected the defendants' argument that Coombs did not expect privacy because he relieved himself outside the bar and that he did not hang a privacy tag on the door of his hotel room.

"Other factors indicate that Coombs did conduct himself in a manner consistent with an expectation of privacy. Realizing he had consumed too much alcohol, he went to his hotel room, closed the door, lay down on the floor and fell asleep, clothed in everything except his shoes," Hoofman wrote.

"Under these circumstances, the proof could lead to different conclusions by the fact-finder as to Coombs' expectation of privacy, making summary judgment inappropriate," he added.

Hunt may also face vicarious liability when the case is remanded, based on the fact that the incident took place on a company retreat as well as Allenworth and Emerson's instruction to the employees not to talk about the incident."When an overlap of the business and the personal are present in an employee's actions, an employer may be vicariously liable under the doctrine of respondeat superior, depending on the circumstances," Hoofman wrote.

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