Can Employees Assaulted On The Job Get Workers Compensation?

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Workers' Compensation Alabama Employment Law Assault
The Alabama Workers’ Compensation Act covers assaults on employees, if the assault is the result of the victim’s status as an employee.

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.”

Workers’ Comp: A Replacement Machine Is Not a “Safety Device”

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The Alabama Supreme Court held that failure to install a replacement machine is not equivalent to removal of a “safety device.”

Alabama’s Workers’ Compensation Act provides employers with an interesting trade-off.  Employees who are injured on the job are entitled to have their medical bills paid by the employer and receive compensation for any resulting disability.  But, the amount of disability benefits are specifically set-out and limited by the Act.  Workers’ Compensation is a no-fault system.  If an employee is injured, he or she is entitled to benefits.  Here’s the trade-0ff.  In the vast majority of cases, the Workers’ Compensation Act prohibits employees from suing their employer for negligence, wantonness or punitive damages.  In short, the Workers’ Compensation Act makes it easier for employees to recover for their injuries, but limits the ability of employees to sue their employers and the amount they can recover.

Of course, there are always exceptions to any law.  The Workers’ Compensation Act also recognizes a limited set of cases in which the employee can sue his or her co-employees for punitive damages.  If a co-employee engages in “willful conduct” that causes injury to another employee, the co-employee can be sued.  Generally, the Act recognizes four types of “willful conduct”:  (1) acting with a purpose, intent or design to injure another; (2) willful and intentional removal from a machine of a safety guard or safety device provided by the manufacturer of the machine with knowledge that injury or death would likely or probably result from the removal; (3) intoxication that causes injury or death of a co-employee; and, (4) willful and intentional violation of a specific written safety rule of the employer after written notice.

Over the years, employees have attempted to expand the reach of those four examples of “willful conduct.”  Last week, the Alabama Supreme Court rejected such an attempt in Saarinen v. Hall, No. 1160066, 2017 WL 3821732 (Ala. Sep. 1, 2017).  In that case, Louis Hall was injured by a power saw, which was manufactured with a guard that was insufficient to protect Hall.  At least a month before he was injured, his employer purchased a replacement saw with a better guard from  a different manufacturer.  But, the replacement saw was not installed because his employer was too busy to change out the saws.

Hall injured his hand on the saw with the insufficient guard, and then sued his supervisors for “willful conduct.”  Hall claimed that their failure to install the new saw was equivalent to the willful and intentional removal of a safety guard.  The Alabama Supreme Court rejected that argument:  “Under the facts in this case, the failure to install another, presumably safer, saw that was present on the premises but that had not been put into operation and that was manufactured by a different manufacturer than the saw that injured the plaintiff is not the equivalent of the removal of a safety guard so as to constitute willful conduct ….”  Saarinen, 2017 WL 3821732 at *3.  Interestingly, the Supreme Court expressly refused to decide whether the failure to install a replacement machine manufactured by the same manufacturer might be equivalent to removal of a safety device.

 

Cell Phones and Computers Increase Workers’ Compensation Risks

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Cell phones and computers can increase the possibility of liability under the Alabama Workers’ Compensation Act

Alabama employers who provide employees with cell phones and laptop computers are increasing their exposure to claims for benefits under the Alabama Workers’ Compensation Act.  See Hospice Family Care v. Allen, No. 2140961, 2016 WL 3223297 (Ala. Civ. App. Jun. 10, 2016).  Suzanne Allen was a hospice nurse who was required to drive around North Alabama treating patients. Her employer did not provide a car, but paid mileage on her personal vehicle.  The employer also provided Ms. Allen with a cell phone and laptop computer.  Ms. Allen’s work schedule was from 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., but her employer encouraged her to go home after seeing her last patient, rather than returning to the office each day.  Ms. Allen was killed while driving home on February 3, 2014 at 3:46 p.m., when her car was struck by a vehicle in the wrong lane.

Courts in Alabama usually follow the “going and coming rule.”  Under that rule, the Alabama Workers’ Compensation Act generally does not cover an accident which occurs while a worker is traveling on a public road while going to or coming form work.  Thus, the employer in Hospice Family Care argued that Ms. Allen’s accident was not covered by the Workers’ Compensation Act, because she was unquestionably travelling home.

Based upon the facts of the case, however, a trial court and the Court of Civil Appeals found that Ms. Allen’s accident was covered.  In particular, the court noted that Ms. Allen was provided a laptop computer and cellphone and she regularly worked on patient charts for two hours after arriving home.  As the court put it, “nurses were encouraged to go home to complete their required tasks.”  Because Ms. Allen was “going home to complete a required task,” the Court found that her drive home was in the furtherance of the business of Hospice Family Care and, therefore covered by the Workers’ Compensation Act.

Unquestionably, technology provides a great benefit to all employers.  With that benefit, however, comes additional risks.  Hospice Family Care demonstrates one of those risks.  If employers encourage employees to work from home, and provide the technology to do so, then accidents that would not ordinarily be covered could potentially be subject to the Alabama Workers’ Compensation Act.

The Dangers of Christmas Hams And Other Workplace Holiday Issues

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Christmas is only three days away.  So, I decided to provide a review of three somewhat amusing cases in Alabama involving the interplay of the holidays and the workplace.

Don’t Give Employees Heavy Christmas Hams

Many employers give Christmas hams to employees.  Be warned:  if the ham is too heavy you might wind up paying workers’ compensation.  See Moesch v. Baldwin County Elec. Memb. Corp., 479 So.2d 1271 (Ala. Civ. App. 1985).  In Moesch, the employee injured her back at the end of the work day, when she picked up a 20-pound Christmas ham given by her employer.  The Court found that giving Christmas hams “would tend to boost the morale of employees, which would be beneficial to defendant.”  Moesch, 479 So.2d at 1273.  As a result, the court found that the employee’s injury “arose out of and in the course of” her employment, entitling her to workers’ compensation benefits.

It’s OK to Allow Dancing at Christmas Parties

While ham-based injuries appear to be compensable, dance injuries are not.  See Anderson v. Custom Caterers, Inc., 185 So.2d 383 (Ala. 1966).  In Anderson, an employee was injured as a result of a fall she sustained while dancing at a Christmas party.  The party was held at the employer’s place of business and alcohol was served.  The employee argued, like the employee in Moesch, that the employer received a benefit from the morale boost to employees.  Nevertheless, the Court found that the injury did not arise out of or in the course of employment, and the employee was not entitled to workers compensation.

Holiday Pay Can Save You From an Unemployment Claim

In Etowah County, a steel foundry closed for two weeks over the holidays.  A collective bargaining agreement provided that employees received “holiday pay” and were paid a full day’s wage for Christmas Day and New Years day, even though the foundry was closed.  Despite that generosity, employees claimed that they were unemployed during the two-week closure and sought unemployment benefits.  See Autwell v. State Dept. of Indus. Rel., 249 So.2d 625 (Ala. Civ. App.)  Nevertheless, they could only be considered unemployed if they did not receive “wages” as defined by the unemployment compensation statute.  The Autwell court found that the holiday pay was sufficient “wages” and affirmed denial of the claim for benefits.

 

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!