Danny Ray Fuston was a low-level criminal just out of an Oklahoma prison and looking to start a new life in Minnesota. Through a temporary labor agency, he found some outdoor work hacking weeds for a 74-year-old widow in Bloomington.
That June day in 2014 went so well she invited him back for a second day of work. The woman, Marlene Gronholz, even made Fuston lunch and sat with him in her kitchen, where Minnesota Nice met Oklahoma Evil.
Fuston, a car thief and repeat drunken driver who twice escaped from custody, returned the kindness by clubbing Gronholz over the head with a coffee mug. He dragged her into another room, kicked her for good measure, then slit her throat.
Hoping to eliminate evidence, Fuston cleaned the knife and put it away, leaving Gronholz to die. He stole the woman’s car, picked up his check from the temp agency, AAA Labor, then did what any aspiring murderer might do: He went to a Twins game.
Except Gronholz didn’t die. She woke up and called for help. Normally a careful woman, she had installed a security camera in her house, and it captured the horrific crime in full. Fuston pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Last year, Gronholz sued the temp agency for vicarious liability, negligent hiring and negligent supervision. A couple of weeks ago, a jury sided with the company on the first matter, but decided in Gronholz’s favor on the second two counts, awarding her $5.58 million for her pain and suffering.
The judgment against the company comes at a time when a cross section of politicians, from President Obama down to the Minnesota Legislature, have moved to eliminate employment applications that ask potential employees to reveal their criminal history. Numerous studies show that disclosing felonies is a significant hurdle to employment for ex-cons.
Minnesota passed a law in 2014 that prohibits employers, with some exemptions, from asking about crimes. In this case, AAA did ask Fuston about his history because it could have gotten tax credits for hiring recently released convicts. Fuston lied.
The company used the public policy in defending itself, however. “The public interest is best promoted by encouraging the AAAs of the world to return offenders who have paid the price for previous misdeeds to the workplace,” James Martin, AAA’s attorney wrote in a court document. A judgment placing liability on the company would be a “deterrent to the employment of ex-offenders in Minnesota,” he argued.
Martin, who did not return a message, also pointed out in court filings that the U.S. government offers incentives to companies to hire ex-cons because it is good for them and for the economy. “This proves how pervasive the public policy favoring the employment of ex-offenders actually is.”
Gronholz’s attorneys, Paul McEllistrem and Andy Rorvig, don’t disagree with that sentiment. In fact, they acknowledged temp agencies are not required by law to do background checks on all potential employees, but they argued AAA “should have exercised reasonable care when sending someone into the home of a vulnerable person,” said McEllistrem. The agency was not simply sending him to a factory job or somewhere where he would be monitored, but into the home of a senior citizen.
“We’re all about giving people second chances,” McEllistrem said. “But if I’m going to send someone into someone’s house, I’m going to do a basic background check.”
McEllistrem said AAA did a three-minute interview, standing up in the office, before sending Fuston to Gronholz’s house.
Martin argued that a background check wouldn’t have mattered because Fuston did not have a violent history.
“With or without a background check, Fuston would have been hired and the atrocity committed by Fuston on June 6 would have still happened,” Martin wrote. “AAA’s failure to do a background check was not a proximate cause of what was to happen.”
Gronholz’s attorneys faced a long shot. There is very little case law to address liability over a temp worker, and initial focus groups that the lawyers met with to present evidence sympathized with businesses. Many in the focus groups also favored putting former prisoners back to work.
Then they saw Gronholz’s home video, and also saw Fuston in person. Rorvig believes the reality of seeing Fuston, and seeing what he did, hit home with the jury, times 5 million. Rorvig said it should be a warning to any company that uses unsupervised workers.
“It was about trust,” said Rorvig. “When someone comes from Home Depot to deliver something, you assume someone did some due diligence.”
Gronholz underwent surgery and recovered physically but never moved back into her home.
“No American would expect someone like him sent to their house,” said McEllistrem. “Our expectation is that there is a standard. We all have the expectation that an ax murderer will not be sent to our homes.”