An employee assaulted on-the-job is entitled to benefits under the Alabama Workers’ Compensation Act if the assault occurs “because of his or her status as an employee or because of his or her employment.” Lawler and Cole v. Cole, No. 2170162, 2018 WL 3406880 (Ala. Civ. App. Jul. 13, 2018). The Alabama Court of Civil Appeals reached that decision in a case involving the tragic murder of an accountant.
Linda Cole was the long-time accountant for Jimmy Dale Cooper. In 2007 or 2008, Cooper began to be audited for sales tax issues, and he ceased to be a client of Ms. Cole. Those sales tax issues were not resolved in Mr. Cooper’s favor. It appears that Mr. Cooper may have suffered from mental illness and blamed his tax issues on a number of people, including the accountant he employed after Ms. Cole, his attorney, and a former business partner. On February 10, 2016, he held the attorney hostage and forced the attorney to invite the former business partner to his office. While holding the attorney hostage, Cooper told the attorney that he blamed Ms. Cole for his tax problems. Cooper tried to shoot the former business partner, and his current accountant. Cooper then went to Ms. Cole’s office and confronted her. He told her: “You have f***** my taxes up for the last time.” Ms. Cole responded: “Jimmy, please don’t do this” and “I will help you, we will do what we can to fix … this mess, but I will help you.” Cooper then shot and killed Ms. Cole.
The insurance company for Ms. Cole’s employer declined to pay workers’ compensation benefits related to the incident, so Ms. Cole’s widow file suit. A trial court in Marion County found that the assault was covered by the Workers’ Compensation Act, and the insurance company appealed.
Under the Workers’ Compensation Act, benefits are provided only if an employee suffers an “injury” that arises out of or in the course of employment. And, the Act provides that “[i]njury does not include an injury caused by the act of a third person … intended to injure the employee because of reasons personal to him or her and not directed against him or her as an employee or because of his or her employment.” Ala. Code §25-5-1(9). The Court of Civil Appeals interpreted that language to mean what it says: “an intentional assault does not arise out of the employment if it is committed upon an employee because of reasons personal to the employee and not because of his or her status as an employee or because of his or her employment.”
The Court focused on “whether the rational mind can trace the assault on the employee to her status as an employee or because of her employment as opposed to some personal characteristic of the employee.” The Court relied upon the comments made by Mr. Cooper and Ms. Cole to find that her murder occurred because of her employment as an accountant.
The Court of Civil Appeals also rejected two arguments by the insurance company. First, the company argued that the assault was not compensable because there was no evidence that Ms. Cole actually caused Mr. Cooper’s tax problems. But, the court found the issue was not whether she actually caused the problems, but whether she was attacked “because of her status as his former accountant and because of her employment.” The insurance company also argued that Cooper’s assault was a “personal attack because of the long passage of time since the professional relationship between Cooper and the employee ended. ” Nevertheless, the court focused on whether there was a “personal” or work-related dispute, and concluded the “undisputed evidence indicates that, at all times, Cooper’s grievance with the employee remained rooted in their working, not personal, relationship.”