Could an Employer Be Liable for Injuries Resulting from Workplace Violence?

Under both federal and California law, there are requirements in place that employers maintain a safe workplace for employees. While employers can face stiff penalties for failure to comply with safety rules, it is not necessarily clear whether employers will be held accountable in the event that a worker suffers serious or fatal personal injury from a violent crime that occurs while at work.

An Example Case

Recently, the family of one a man who was murdered while on the job decided to seek justice. According to Boston.com, the family of a murdered Boston pizza deliveryman filed a lawsuit against his employer, Dominos Pizza, alleging that the company was negligent and should be held responsible for wrongful death. The victim, a 58-year-old father of three, was sent by Dominos to a dilapidated home where he was robbed of his cash and stabbed 16 times.

The victim's family alleges that Dominos should be held responsible for the death and pay $15 million in wrongful death damages for their negligence. The claim for negligence is based on the fact that Dominos had no stated policies for driver security and based on vicarious liability for the negligence of the Dominos employees who took the order. These employees were acting as Dominos' agents and Dominos could thus be held responsible for their carelessness, which included failing to call back the number, sending the victim to the back of the building outside of public view, and answering in the affirmative to a question from the murderers about whether the driver would be carrying cash.

Employer Liability For Workplace Violence

Proving that Dominos should be liable in this particular case may be a challenge for the estate of the deceased deliveryman. Employers can be held liable for workplace violence cases under certain circumstances, but only if they have a duty and they were in breach of that duty.

Employers may be seen as having a general duty to employees by virtue of their employment relationship. This is why, for example, employers must create a safe workplace under OSHA rules.  However, this general duty does not necessarily extend towards a duty to protect others from criminal assault by third parties.
While there may be no general duty of employers to protect employees from criminal assault, there are some situations where employers can assume this duty. For instance, employers can become liable for the third party assault on a worker in the event that there was a "special relationship." The special relationship requirement, however, generally requires that the employer must have had actual knowledge of a known danger and know of the intended victim of that danger.

Employers may also have a duty if the employer knows the employee is in imminent danger or if the employer agreed to protect the employee (either voluntarily or based on their contractual relationship).  Finally employers may be held liable for injury caused by a third party if the employer failed to warn the employee that there was an unreasonable risk of harm associated with the job.

In this case, it is not clear whether Dominos will be held liable or not. The company, for example, may be considered negligent for failing to have policies in place or warnings in place to protect employees in what could be seen as a dangerous position.

The company could also be considered negligent through the doctrine of vicarious liability if the employees who sent the murdered driver to the location knew of the danger and failed to provide any warning. It would, however, have to be shown that these employees were negligent in their actions and that a reasonable person would have acted differently.  It would also be necessary to show that their actions directly led to the victim's injuries and that such injuries were foreseeable.

Holding Employers Accountable

While California and other states work to protect employees from many types of workplace personal injury, the current state of laws makes it difficult for employees to collect from their employers for failure to protect them from workplace violence, explains a lawyer. Some states are passing laws imposing greater obligations to ensure safety for employees in high-risk fields, such as those operating late night stores. In the meantime, the case of the murdered pizza deliveryman could help to set precedent on a difficult issue.

For more information on your rights to a safe work environment, see Workers’ Rights to Safety and Health in the Workplace.

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