HR Management & Compliance

Workplace Violence: New Case Gives Employers a Tool to Ward Off Tragedy; Restraining Orders Now Easier to Obtain

On July 8, 2003, a worker at a Lockheed Martin Mississippi aircraft parts plant gunned down 14 coworkers, killing five. On August 27, 2003, a disgruntled former employee opened fire at a Chicago auto parts warehouse, killing six former coworkers. These tragedies are just a fraction of the workplace violence incidents—which include the spillover of domestic violence into the workplace—making headlines.

In light of this serious problem, it’s critical for employers to become familiar with the steps they can take to prevent such workplace horror. We’ll focus on a new California Court of Appeal decision that gives employers more leeway to use restraining orders to protect their workplaces from violence.

Employee Uses Threatening Language

Ezell Edwards was a mill worker at USS-POSCO Industries (UPI) tin mill in the Northern California city of Pittsburg. One day, following a reprimand for not wearing safety equipment, Edwards walked into an office where manager Walter Rowell and some other managers were sitting and asked if they were going to follow him home because they were so concerned about his safety. Then Edwards said, “You know what time I get off. You know where the parking lot is at… We’ll just go out there and take care of this.”

Rowell felt threatened by Edwards’s remarks because Edwards had previously mentioned that he carried a gun. Two other managers present agreed that the remarks were threatening “in an indirect way.” The next morning, department manager Lynette Giacobazzi suspended Edwards for five days for violating company policy against using threatening language toward co-workers.

Later that day, co-workers reported that Edwards had recently made some threatening statements. These included saying, “The day I tell you to report off, you better, because I’m going to come in gunning,” stating that he carried a gun, and remarking that he would turn USS-POSCO into “USS Columbine.”


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Court Issues Restraining Order

On learning this information, Giacobazzi became concerned that Edwards might be upset about his recent discipline and try to retaliate against her or other USS-POSCO staff. So the company asked a court for a restraining order to require Edwards to stay away from Giacobazzi and the UPI premises. California law permits an employer to seek a temporary restraining order and an injunction on behalf of an employee who has suffered unlawful violence or a credible threat of violence from any individual.

Edwards denied making threats and said he didn’t own a gun. But the court issued a temporary restraining order and eventually a three-year injunction prohibiting Edwards from making further threats against Giacobazzi.

Broad Right to Seek Restraining Order

Edwards appealed, arguing the law didn’t authorize a restraining order here because no specific threat was directed at a particular employee.

A California appeals court upheld the injunction. The court ruled that an employer may seek a restraining order on behalf of an employee who is credibly threatened with violence, regardless of whether the aggressor identifies that employee. Before this decision, many employers assumed they could obtain a restraining order only if the aggressor made a specific threat toward another worker.

Heading Off Disaster Incidents of workplace violence are all too frequent these days. But as this case shows, there are tools you can use to help prevent tragedies. Here are some guidelines:

     

  1. Take all threats seriously. Threats made by an employee or someone else should be taken seriously. It’s always safer to err on the side of caution.

     

  2. Evaluate threats. Assessing whether a threat is a true risk is difficult because it’s not always easy to accurately predict who is dangerous. However, many stress factors, warning signs, and cues can signal the possibility of violence.

     

  3. Take action. Employees who make serious, detailed threats should be terminated. If the circumstances warrant, increase security by changing locks and passwords and hiring a security guard service.

     

  4. Consider a restraining order. If you determine that a threat is credible, you can seek a restraining order or injunction. You can request this on behalf of any employee who could be the target of the threat, and the alleged aggressor does not need to be an employee or ex-employee. Depending on the circumstances, you can also encourage and assist the targeted employee to seek their own restraining order to protect them away from the workplace.