How Employers Can be Liable for Workplace Violence

In the summer of 2009, a man walked into an Old Navy store in downtown Chicago where his girlfriend worked, pulled out a gun, shot her to death, and then killed himself. Police called the incident a “domestic dispute.” Not only did Old Navy have to deal with the public relations nightmare the incident caused, the family of the murdered employee soon filed a lawsuit against the company. The suit alleges that the shooting could have been prevented and that store management knew of threats against the employee and failed to act. It also alleged that the store’s security measures were outdated because the boyfriend was able to enter the store through a private employee entrance and then gain access to a restricted employee area, where he committed the murder-suicide.

Incidents of workplace violence such as this one have become an increasingly problematic phenomenon in recent decades. According the bureau of Labor Statistics, 11,613 people were killed between 1992 and 2006 in incidents of workplace violence. On average, 1.7 million people are victims of violent crime while working or on duty in the United States every year, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) defines workplace violence as “any physical assault, threatening behavior, or verbal abuse occurring in the work setting.” The workplace can be any location “where an employee performs any work-related duty.” This includes buildings, parking lots, clients’ homes, and travel to and from work assignments.While it would seem that the blame for workplace violence would most naturally fall on the perpetrators, employers also face various legal liabilities when their employees or customers are victims.

There are several methods by which an employer can be held liable for incidents of workplace violence, outlined below.

OSHA Violations

Under the General Duty Clause of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, every employer “shall furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees.”In the case of workplace violence, an employer could be liable under OSHA if a victim or victim’s family can prove that the employer knew or should have known that violence could occur. Under OSHA, an employer may also be penalized if the U.S. Secretary of Labor establishes that the employer violated the General Duty Clause. In order to establish a violation, the Department of Labor must prove:

  1. A hazard existed
  2. The employer or its industry knew the hazard existed
  3. The hazard was likely to cause death or serious bodily harm, and
  4. A feasible abatement method existed.

Failure to Exercise Ordinary Care

Employers have a duty to exercise ordinary care. If workplace violence occurs, they may be liable for negligence if they knew or should have known of a potentially dangerous situation. Lawsuits could be based on negligent hiring, retention, training, or supervising of an employee who went on to commit violence at the workplace. Employers can also be sued for negligence if a customer or someone else made threats before carrying out violent acts, yet management failed to take any action.

Failing to Create a Safe Environment

As the Old Navy case illustrates, employers can be held liable when non-employees can enter the workplace and commit violent acts. If a customer is injured in an act of workplace violence, the victim may also be able to hold the company liable under a theory of premises liability, as commercial establishments generally owe their customers a duty to keep them safe from criminal activity that occurs on their property.

Contact an Atlanta Personal Injury Attorney Today for a Free Consultation

If you have been injured at work, you may be entitled to recover through one of the theories of liability outlined above. Contact the attorneys at Slappey & Sadd for a free consultation to discuss your case by calling 404.255.6677. We serve the entire state of Georgia, including the following locations: Covington, Augusta, and Lagrange.

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