HR Management & Compliance

Terminating Employees: Employer Ordered To Pay $450,000 To Worker Fired For Defending Himself From Co-Worker’s Assault

Hector Escalante was a print machine operator at Wilson’s Art Studio Inc. in Orange County. One day without warning co-worker Ion Stanei allegedly attacked Escalante with a stick and hammer and threw a box of screws at him. As Escalante ran away, Stanei hurled another box of screws, hitting Escalante in the back. When Escalante tried to restrain Stanei in a bear hug, Stanei struck Escalante on the head with a metal tool—leaving him with a head wound that took 13 stitches to close. When Escalante returned to work, he was fired for fighting on the job.

Employee Strikes Back With Lawsuit

Escalante sued, charging that Wilson’s violated public policy by firing him for exercising his right to self-defense. Wilson’s responded that Escalante was fired because he became the aggressor in the fight when he tried to grab Stanei. However, witnesses confirmed that Stanei was still advancing toward Escalante when Escalante attempted to restrain him.

Now an Orange County jury has sided with Escalante, ordering Wilson’s to pay him $451,860. Plus, the judge ordered Stanei to pay Escalante $230,000 for assault and battery. Wilson’s is appealing the verdict.


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Employer Ignored Past Problem

Escalante’s attorney Mark Weidmann told CEA that Escalante had no history of problems with co-workers. Stanei, however, had allegedly attacked another co-worker without provocation several years earlier. According to Weidmann, Wilson’s took no disciplinary action after that incident and had no policy addressing workplace violence.

Avoiding Big Damages

This case illustrates the serious problems you can face when you don’t rein in violent employees. Here are some suggestions to help prevent similar problems:

     

  1. Address aggressive behavior. An employee’s unchecked violent behavior can lead to lawsuits if someone gets hurt. In this case, Wilson’s might have faced liability even if it hadn’t fired Escalante. That’s because although an employer is not automatically responsible when an employee physically assaults a co-worker, if you take no disciplinary action in response to an attack, creating the appearance that you approved of it, you could be considered to have “ratified” the assault and could be held liable.

     

  2. Don’t terminate the victim. Investigate all violent workplace confrontations and impose appropriate discipline. But don’t fire someone for trying to defend themselves from a co-worker’s attack.

     

  3. Ban conduct that could increase workers’ comp costs. Even if you don’t face a lawsuit, your workers’ comp costs are likely to rise if you don’t curtail employee roughhousing or other aggressive or unsafe behavior that can lead to workplace injuries. Consistently enforce all work rules designed to prevent employee injuries.