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Assaulted Employee’s Claims Barred by Workers’ Compensation

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Workers’ compensation statutes provide the sole remedy for an employee assaulted by a co-worker if the assault is related to one’s employment, including disputes over job performance or the scope of job responsibilities, according to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

The plaintiff worked for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority and was staffing a Metro station kiosk. When a co-worker turned away a customer who was seeking help using a ticketing machine, the plaintiff offered to help, but the co-worker told him not to touch the machines.

The plaintiff helped the customer anyway, and when he returned to the kiosk, the co-worker told him it was not his responsibility to help customers, and they began discussing their job responsibilities. The conversation escalated, and the co-worker then attacked the plaintiff, beating him unconscious.

When the plaintiff regained consciousness, the co-worker said they should stop fighting because they would lose their jobs, but then attacked him again. Police arrested the co-worker, who was later convicted of assault. The plaintiff incurred significant injuries that required hospitalization.

The plaintiff sued his employer for assault and battery and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The parties stipulated to a workers’ compensation order, but the plaintiff continued to press his personal injury claims. The court eventually dismissed these claims under the Virginia Workers’ Compensation Act, because the plaintiff’s injuries arose out of his employment.

The D.C. Circuit affirmed dismissal because the claims were barred by workers’ compensation: The altercation related solely to work matters and was directed against the plaintiff as an employee because of his rendering assistance to a customer and the co-worker’s disagreement over job responsibilities.

In so ruling, the court distinguished an earlier case involving sexual assault between co-workers, where the attack, according to the court, was motivated by personal feelings and could not reasonably be traced to a workplace dispute. Here, the court found, the plaintiff’s manner of performing his duties motivated the attack, so workers’ compensation provided the exclusive remedy.

In addition, the court noted that the plaintiff had already stipulated to a workers’ compensation award, and so agreed that his injuries arose from a work-related accident; he was not permitted to receive both benefits of two mutually exclusive modes of recovery.

Workagegnehu v. Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, D.C. Cir., No. 19-7029 (Nov. 24, 2020), petition for rehearing denied (Jan. 13, 2021).

Professional Pointer: Although it stipulated that the plaintiff’s injury was incurred in the course of employment, the employer seems to have avoided implying that the other employee inflicted the injury in the course of employment as well, which might expose it to liability for negligent hiring or negligent supervision, especially where—as with claims by contractors or customers—workers’ compensation is unavailable. The employer should carefully consider all the facts and circumstances before pursuing such a strategy.

Caroline Secola is an attorney with Collazo & Keil LLP, the Worklaw® Network member firm in New York City.

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