BY Susan M. Brazas for Lawyers.com
Now and again, the stories burst from the headlines:
- A disgruntled employee returns to his workplace and opens fire
- Two co-workers fight and it turns violent
- A worker is assaulted in the pre-dawn hours when arriving for work
- A business partner kills himself after fatally shooting his partner during an argument at work
Headlines like these give any worker cause for worry about what danger might be lurking at the office, factory or job site. But who's responsible for the injuries or death from such violence? Does the employer have a duty to keep employees safe?
Did the Employer Know of the Danger?
Workplace violence generally comes as a shock to workers and their families. The worker who fired the shots, or started the fight, is usually the one responsible. However, if the employer knew - or should have known - the worker was dangerous and didn't have enough security, a court or jury might find the employer is legally responsible for the injuries, too.
Clues to a Problem
Prior knowledge of threats, past violent acts or outbursts or emotional instability could be enough to hold the employer responsible for an injury. If the employer knew security measures weren't very tight - such as an unguarded and poorly lit parking lot, or easy and unguarded access through the doors - it might have to pay.
Employees can be fired for making even the slightest threat about violence in the workplace or for bringing a weapon to the site. Such things should be spelled out in the employee handbook.
Worker's Compensations Claims Are One Solution
In the vast majority of injury cases, the employees' only legal remedy is the worker's compensation system.
A case in Illinois involved a McDonald's worker who was assaulted in the parking lot when she arrived for a 6:00 a.m. shift. She sued McDonald's and the owner of the franchise, claiming that both knew that the parking lot had inadequate lighting and security.
The court decided she could sue the franchise owner only through the worker's compensation system. The key question in cases like this is whether the violence was a hazard that arose from employment. If it was, the injured employee may bring only a worker's compensation claim against the employer, not a regular lawsuit.
Take Action at Work
Contact your boss, the company and an attorney right away if you were injured at work or because of workplace violence.
The attorney will help decide whether the case should be filed in the worker's compensation system or in the regular court system. Either way, the time deadlines are very strict, and the attorney needs time to gather information about what happened.
Tell your employer in writing if you believe that a co-worker might harm someone, or if the setting in and around your workplace is dangerous. Keep a copy of your letter, and make written notes about your conversation with your employer. It will help show your employer was aware of the dangers and will be important for an attorney to review if an incident occurs.
No one expects to get hurt at work, especially at the hands of a co-worker. Employers and employees alike should take steps to prevent violence at the workplace and know what to do if violence erupts.
Questions for Your Attorney
- My husband was shot by a co-worker while at work. Is his employer responsible for our medical bills?
- What's the difference between a worker's compensation suit and a regular lawsuit?
- My employer offered me a cash settlement for injuries I suffered after being assaulted by a co-worker. Should I take the settlement?