Injuries and Violence at the Workplace

by John P. Scanlon

PART II

Previously, in this column, we discussed the unfortunate fact that too often in the public sphere we encounter random acts of violence. We have seen these types of events take place at malls, schools and in office buildings. We discussed the responsibility that a business owner has to its customers for these acts of violence. In this column, we will discuss the responsibilities of an employer to its employees for injuries as a result of violence in the work place.

General Rule - No Responsibility

In Illinois, the courts have traditionally held that an employer will not be liable under the Workers' Compensation Act for injuries that result from truly random acts of violence. In addition, courts have ruled that an employer is not responsible for the injuries caused to an employee by an attack that is made by a personal enemy or antagonist of the employee.

Two examples can best illustrate these two legal principles. First, consider an accounting firm in the middle of the city in an otherwise safe neighborhood. If that firm's building happens to be struck by a stray bullet that comes through the office window and strikes one of the employees, this act on its own generally will not result in liability for the employer. The rationale is that the employee's injury did not truly arise out of and in the course of his employment. In other words, the employee's work did not make it anymore likely that he would be injured; instead the employee was just as likely to be struck by a bullet as a passerby on the street. Under this reasoning, the employee is not entitled to workers' compensation because his injury is not related to his employment.

Exceptions to the General Rule

However, if that employer chose to run its office building in an area where there is high crime rate and a history of gun fire and stray bullets, then that same set of facts may result in the imposition of responsibility on the employer if an employee gets hit by a stray bullet.

In addition, if an employer knows that its office building is vulnerable to criminal attacks due to prior episodes and does nothing to guard against it, again, that type of fact pattern may result in responsibility being imposed on the employer.

As a second example, occasionally, an employer may have on its payroll an employee who is going through a personal dispute unrelated to the work. This could be the result of marital difficulties or some other personal issue.

In order to hold an employer responsible for acts of violence that occur during work, an injured employee has to make some showing that there was something about the work environment that increased the risk of attack. If this cannot be shown, generally speaking the employer will not be responsible for injuries or harm caused under the Workers' Compensation Act. In the first example, where the employer chose to run its office building in a high crime area, Illinois courts have found that the employee's injury was related to his employment. Courts have ruled that where the employer knew it may be subjecting its employees to an increased risk of harm or violence, liability will attach.

There have also been situations where an intruder enters the work place to assault a former spouse or acquaintance, the general rule would be that the employer would not be responsible for such attacks. In contrast if an intruder enters the workplace to steal from the business and an employee gets harmed during the robbery, the employer will be responsible for the injury.

As a final example, occasionally two employees will get into a physical altercation at work. Here again, whether or not workers' compensation liability will apply depends on whether some connection can be drawn between the employment and the employees injury. Sometimes, such a connection can be drawn because the disagreement that started the altercation was work related, such as when employees fight over who was to perform a specific job task. However, if the fight between the two employees was not related to work, an employee will not be compensated merely because his injury occurred on the job.

Employers can and should install certain safeguards to lessen the likelihood of harm to employees at the place of employment. Controlling access points to the work environment is one method. Use of security cameras and front door security is another method. Finally, having an emergency plan in place to ensure prompt response in the event of an act of violence is crucial. All these things in today's environment should be considered by a responsible employer.

These cases demonstrate once again that whether or not someone will be able to receive compensation for their injuries is heavily fact dependent and is truly decided on a case by case basis. It is important that if you or someone you know is injured, you should contact an attorney immediately, whether or not you believe the law provides for compensation under the particular facts of your accident.