Confidential Consultation

March 7, 2001 Verdicts & Settlements
by Leonard Novarro

When someone comes into your home to perform work, you expect to be safe.

That was the thrust of an argument that won $11.5 million in damages for the husband of a Bay Area pediatrician who was murdered in her home by a carpet cleaner with a criminal record.

“Bringing about change in the manner in which businesses go about providing services in the home was the basic objective, and a lawsuit seemed the best way to achieve that,” plaintiff’s counsel Paul D. Scott says.

In that case, Dean v. Oppenheim Davidson Enterprises Inc., 809231-1 (Alameda Super. Ct., verdict Nov. 16, 2000), an Alameda County Superior Court jury found, 9-3, that the company, doing business at the time under the name America’s Best Carpet Care, was negligent for inadequately screening the application of an ex-convict.

The man, Jerrol Glenn Woods, 52, subsequently pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and robbery. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Nine days after the liability verdict, the jury, again split 9-3, awarded monetary damages. However, both parties agreed to an undisclosed settlement barring any appeals.

Charles Horn of Wright, Robinson. Osthimer & Tatum in San Francisco represented the defendant. He did not return phone calls to discuss the case.

Paul D. Scott, a San Francisco sole practitioner who represented the plaintiff, Daniel Dean, 34, said that, in a sense, the case was a test.

“There was case law available holding that employers could be held liable for negligently hiring employees who later committed violent or sex crimes,” Scott explains.

“But, there was no case law directly holding that a company could be held liable for intentional torts committed by an independent contractor hired by the company. This case was unique in that we succeeded on the latter theory.”

Dean, the victim’s husband, initially hired Quentin Kopp, a former state senator, as his counsel in the case. Kopp asked Scott to take over after he was elected to the Superior Court bench in 1998.

“The Dean family wanted to prevent this from ever happening again,” Scott says. So he tried the case, assisted by Kopp’s former partner, Thomas DeFranco.

America’s Best Carpet Care, a Milpitas company, went out of business after the plaintiffs filed suit in March 1999.

According to the suit, Woods did the initial carpet work in November 1997. However, Dean’s wife, Dr. Kerry Spooner-Dean, 30, called him back to the Rockridge home several times. She asserted that Woods’ work was shoddy and incomplete.

On Woods’ last visit in May 1998, according to police, an apparently enraged Woods robbed and fatally stabbed Spooner-Dean. Spooner-Dean’s husband found her with two kitchen knives sticking out of her chest when he returned home from work.

Spooner-Dean was in line for a commendation from Oakland for her volunteer work at the city’s Head Start centers, homeless shelters and the Children’s Hospital Oakland.

“My honest reaction when I saw the newspaper article describing her murder was that I felt a pain in my chest,” recalls Scott.

“Here was a beautiful young woman who had a remarkable reputation in the Oakland community for helping poor and disadvantaged children, and she was stabbed in her home needlessly, all because a company sent a murderer out there and didn’t take basic steps to check his background.”

Woods, in fact, was no stranger to the criminal justice system.

“He had been in jail the better part of his life,” Scott says.

Woods was most recently in federal custody, according to Scott.

At the time of the murder, he was on parole after having served 12 years for bank robbery.

In the summer of 1996, shortly after his release from a half-way house in the Bay Area, Sears, Roebuck & Co. hired him as a carpet cleaner. Woods listed that employment relationship on his application to America’s Best.

“The law in California provides that an employer can be held liable for negligent hiring if they have reason to believe an employee is unfit or they don’t use reasonable care to discover unfitness when hiring.

“So that puts the burden on employers to check out their people before they send them out to people’s homes,” explains Scott.

Defense counsel Horn, during the trial before Judge Gordon Baranco, argued that Woods never was an employee of the defendant, but rather an independent contractor who entered into an agreement with Spooner-Dean as Jerrol’s Affordable Carpet Cleaning, a separate company.

Horn introduced into evidence the contract Spooner-Dean signed with Woods. According to Scott, Horn asserted that America’s Best was an answering service and not a party to Woods’ firm.

However, Scott showed the jury that America’s Best had solicited carpet cleaners to work for it and simultaneously mailed out thousands of coupons in the Bay Area, advertising its own carpet cleaning service.

“So they were the ones who solicited Kerry to call the business and the same ones who brought Jerrol Woods into their office and sent him into the Dean home,” Scott argues.

Throughout the trial, Scott maintained that America’s Best had the responsibility to insure that the person they sent out was not a danger to customers.

But Steven Davidson, owner of America’s Best, says he had no way of knowing Woods was dangerous. America’s Best had lost Woods’ employment application, which mentioned only the position with Sears.

Yet, a former America’s Best employee, Keith Headley, testified that Woods said he had been in prison. Headley then relayed this information to a manager. However, Headley reports that the manager told Headley that “it really didn’t matter.”

The absence of any further employment history should have been a tip-off that Woods’ past was at least questionable. This should have been investigated further, Scott says.

The plaintiff’s experts, Lester Rosen, owner of Employment Screening Resources Inc. of San Francisco, and Lanier Jeff Bishop, owner of Clean Care Seminars in Albany, Ga., testified that it is customary to go back seven to 10 years to check a job applicant’s employment record.

“Just a basic kind of resume check would have turned up a huge gap in the employment history of Jerrol Woods, which would have been a huge red flag,” Scott says.

“Suddenly, in 1996, he’s dropped on the planet,” he adds. “That’s a very suspicious thing and would have called for a follow-up.”

Scott also argued that a basic check of Woods’ Social Security number would also have shown an unexplained gap in his work history.

At one point, Davidson testified at trial that America’s Best had received an exemplary recommendation from Sears regarding Woods.

Scott then called to the stand Steven Finn, a Sears manager in Northern California. Finn testified that not only did Sears not give Woods a recommendation, the company fired him for trying to defraud it of money.

“That was the moment of clarity for the jury,” Scott says.

Please be advised that this website is an information resource and is not intended to provide legal advice in your particular case.  We would be pleased to conduct a confidential review of your potential claim, but by doing so we are not agreeing to act as your counsel.  A written agreement between you and the Law Offices of Paul D. Scott is prerequisite to representation.  Past successes by the firm do not guarantee future results.


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