Veteran personal injury lawyer Paul McEllistrem knew he had a good case on his hands when Marlene Gronholz walked into his office. She had a pretty horrific story to tell.
Gronholz, an elderly widow who lived alone, needed some work done in her yard and contacted AAA Labor, which assigned the task to one of its newest hires — Danny Ray Fuston, recently discharged from an Oklahoma prison.
When Gronholz invited Fuston into her home for lunch, he hit Gronholz on the head with a cookie jar, slashed her throat with a knife and left her for dead. Then he stole Gronholz’s car and went to a Twins game.
Astonishingly, Gronholz survived. Even more amazing, much of the assault had been recorded on Gronholz’s elaborate home security system. Fuston pleaded guilty to second-degree attempted murder and was sentenced to 20 years.
But it took a jury to resolve the civil case against AAA Labor. “I couldn’t believe they would risk taking this case to trial. In my 24 years of doing this, I’d never been that sure I’d win,” said McEllistrem.
McEllistrem acknowledged there were some big legal obstacles, beginning with the fact that he could point to no Minnesota law that would have required even a cursory background check on Fuston. As a result, McEllistrem and Andrew Rorvig had to give the jury a more nuanced take on AAA’s duty to Gronholz.
“We couldn’t say, ‘You have to do a background check.’ Instead, we said, ‘You don’t send a guy who is on the first day of the job, a guy you don’t know anything about, to the house of a little old lady who is all by herself,’” McEllistrem explains.
The jury rejected the vicarious liability claim against AAA, concluding that Fuston’s actions were not reasonably foreseeable. But it awarded Gronholz a whopping $5.58 million for negligent hiring and negligent supervision.
The actual payout wasn’t quite that big, McEllistrem acknowledged.
While the jury was in deliberations, the two sides agreed to a high-low agreement. The settlement was less than the jury’s award, McEllistrem says, but still the largest in the 30-year history of the firm – and a career highpoint for both lawyers.