HR Management & Compliance

Violent Employees: Failing to Adequately Investigate and Supervise Can Spell Trouble

Much has been said in recent years about the phenomenon of postal service workers and other employees who go berserk and harm co-workers or innocent bystanders. Now, in a new case, the post office was sued for more than $500,000 when an employee with a violent background attacked a tow truck driver. This lawsuit is of interest to all employers, private and public.

Postal Worker Had Checkered Past

Ervin Lee Brown was a U.S. Postal Service employee. After he was arrested at work on charges of assaulting an ex-girlfriend, the post office investigated his background.

It turned out Brown had a criminal record that included several arrests and convictions, and he had been committed to a psychiatric facility after assaulting his wife with a kitchen knife. The investigation recommended that Brown be removed from his job, but no action was taken.

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Then one day someone alerted Brown that his car was being towed because it was illegally parked in the post office parking lot. Brown ran out of the building, grabbed tow truck driver Kerry Senger by the neck, and threatened to kill him if he didn’t put the car down. Brown was arrested and later convicted of criminal menacing.

Government Accused of Negligent Hiring and Supervision

Senger turned around and sued the federal government for damages stemming from Brown’s assault. He charged the Postal Service had negligently hired Brown by failing to do a reasonable background check and negligently supervised him after learning he may have posed a risk to others. The post office tried to get the case dismissed under a special law that says the U.S. government can’t be held liable for assaults committed by its employees.

Court Says Case Can Go Forward

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal said that despite the special law, the Postal Service could be liable for negligently hiring and supervising Brown. The court explained that when an employer knows or should have known of an employee’s violent disposition that creates a foreseeable risk of harm to others, and still hires or fails to adequately supervise the worker, the employer can be held liable if the employee harms someone. This is true even if the federal government is the employer. Therefore, the court refused to throw out the lawsuit.

Take Action Now

This decision highlights the risk of an expensive lawsuit for damages if you could have taken steps to prevent an assault by one of your employees, but didn’t. Here are some ways to avoid potential pitfalls:

  • Conduct thorough background checks. Negligent hiring claims can occur when an employee commits a work-related crime against a third party, and you are accused of not finding out that the person had done that sort of thing in the past. To avoid this problem, it’s important to make reasonable efforts to uncover this kind of information before you hire an applicant. Depending on the job, some steps to take include reviewing the person’s credit history, verifying professional degrees and licenses, searching DMV records, and checking for criminal convictions.


  • Monitor employees. Negligent supervision claims can occur if you don’t carefully oversee an employee’s work and the person commits a crime that was foreseeable, against a customer or someone else. If there’s a possibility of close contact between a worker and a third party, you should consider whether you can take measures to minimize the potential for misconduct.


  • Discipline violent workers. If an employee injures someone while on duty, you might not be liable for the first incident-especially if you did a careful background check and didn’t know the worker posed a risk. But if, like the post office in this case, you learn there’s reason for concern and fail to take action, you could be on the hook if the person commits another crime. Therefore, if you discover a possible problem involving one of your employees, it’s important to promptly investigate and take appropriate disciplinary action.