HR Management & Compliance

Preventing Violence In The Workplace: Employee Punched By Co-Worker Wins $2.5 Million Verdict; Take Action Now

If two employees get into a scuffle at work and one is hurt, you might assume that the injured employee’s only recourse against you is to file a workers’ compensation claim. But a San Diego jury’s staggering verdict demonstrates that if you don’t respond appropriately to an altercation, you could find yourself on the losing end of an expensive lawsuit.

Employee Socked By Co-Worker

Wendy Beckner worked for insurance brokerage Barney & Barney in San Diego. One day, as Beckner came through a doorway, operations manager Charles Elva Herring (a woman) allegedly punched Beckner in the lower abdomen. As a result, Beckner, who had previously had a kidney transplant, began suffering from persistent abdominal pain and eventually had to undergo major surgery.Beckner reported the alleged assault to human resources. And her attorney followed up with a letter to Barney & Barney requesting that Herring be disciplined. However, Barney & Barney reportedly never took action against Herring.

Beckner sued Barney & Barney and Herring for assault and battery, and charged that the company negligently supervised and retained Herring. The company responded that Beckner’s case should be thrown out because her only remedy was workers’ compensation.


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Employer Liability For Co-Worker Assaults

Generally, workers’ compensation is an injured employee’s sole remedy against their employer, even if a co-worker caused the injury. However, the injured employee can sue the co-worker if the injury is caused by a willful and unprovoked physical act of aggression and the co-worker intended to cause harm.

Although you’re not automatically responsible for this type of co-worker assault, you could be held liable if you take no action, which can create the appearance that you approved of the attack.

Jury Sides With Injured Worker

In this case, Beckner contended that Herring committed a willful and unprovoked physical act of aggression against her. And she argued that Barney & Barney was liable because it ratified Herring’s conduct by not disciplining her. Beckner claimed Herring had hit co-workers in four prior incidents.

Herring denied that she intentionally hit Beckner, saying she only brushed against her. Plus, the company contended that the incident didn’t cause Beckner’s medical problems. But a jury sided with Beckner and awarded her a whopping $2,545,000.

Prevent Problems

This verdict underscores the importance of taking steps to avoid claims that you’re liable for an employee’s misconduct because you condoned it. Here are suggestions for heading off disputes:

     

  1. Take a stand against workplace violence. Institute a strong policy prohibiting any form of threats or actual violence or assaults at work and enforce it consistently. Make clear that violating the policy will result in discipline or termination.

     

  2. Investigate all complaints. Whenever an employee makes a claim of misconduct by a co-worker or supervisor, whether it’s assault, sexual harassment or other improper behavior, you must fully investigate the matter and take steps to keep it from recurring.

     

  3. Impose appropriate discipline. Depending on the seriousness of the charge, your policy and the strength of the evidence, your response could include a warning, suspension or termination. If you can’t determine who is at fault, caution both employees about the consequences of future incidents, and if the circumstances warrant, impose discipline on both workers. Then, monitor the situation to make sure additional problems don’t arise.