Mock Robbery as Posttraining Exercise Leads to Lawsuit

Posttraining exercises provide opportunities for employees to apply what they learned in training and for management to gain insight into ways to improve future trainings. However, those exercises must be carried out in such a way that no one gets injured—physically or psychologically.


What Happened

“Shannon” was working as a cashier at the front counter at West Kern Water District in California on Friday, July 29, 2011, when a man wearing a ski mask, sunglasses, and a hat approached her, put a bag on the counter, and pointed to the following message written in capital letters on the bag: “I have a gun[.] Put your money in the bag[.]”

When Shannon reached under the counter to press the alarm button, the man pounded on the counter and pointed to the written message again. Terrified, she complied with his demand for money, shaking, and fumbling while transferring the cash from the drawer to the bag. The man pounded on the counter again. Shannon gave the bag to him, and he ran out the door.

Having recently been trained on how to respond if there was a robbery at work, Shannon remembered to look which way the man ran and to write down a description of him.

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Crying and shaking from the ordeal, Shannon felt stunned and betrayed moments later when she and three other female employees learned that the “robbery” was merely a training exercise. The exercise apparently was intended to test how the employees would respond if they thought they actually were being robbed.

The masked man was one of Shannon’s coworkers—the quality control manager. He later said that he had had some reservations about playing the part of the robber, because he was worried that he would be at risk of being shot by the police. However, he had agreed to go along with the plan because he was friends with the female supervisor who was staging the exercise.

As the mock robbery was being carried out, the female supervisor stayed outside to make sure no customers entered the office. The general manager and another male supervisor, who both helped plan the mock robbery, watched via surveillance video.

Shannon’s husband, who also works for the district, was summoned to console her. She was still shaken, though, and she felt nauseated and left work early.

The manager who had portrayed the robber apologized to her before she left work. The supervisor in charge of the exercise called Shannon at home the next day, and so did the general manager. The general manager apologized to Shannon and said that the original plan had changed and that he had not known in advance that a disguise would be used. In addition, he said that he had thought that all employees would be informed in advance that the simulated robbery was a training exercise.

Later, the local police chief said that, had he known about the plan before it had been carried out, he would have advised against conducting the exercise, because it was dangerous. Although the employer had tried to notify the police in advance by leaving a voicemail message for a police sergeant, the sergeant was on vacation and did not get the message until after the exercise took place and after the police responded to a call reporting a possible robbery in progress.

Three of the supervisors who participated in the mock robbery were reprimanded for their roles in it.

After the exercise, Shannon suffered from fears, depression, nightmares, headaches, loss of appetite, and ongoing nausea. She underwent psychological treatment through workers’ compensation and used all of her accrued sick leave and vacation time during a leave of absence.

Shannon sued her employer and the four supervisors for assault and intentional infliction of emotional distress. A jury awarded her $360,000. The trial court granted the district’s motion for a new trial based on its assertion that the jury had been given an inappropriate instruction regarding a workers’ compensation exclusivity rule. Shannon appealed to the California Court of Appeal.

What the Court Said

The state appeals court reversed the trial court order for a new trial. The appeals court concluded that the jury’s instructions were not made in error. Lee v. West Kern Water District, et al. (No. F070772) (California Court of Appeal, 10/24/16)

All training exercises should be conducted with employees’ safety in mind. In this case, the manager who portrayed the robber was concerned for his own safety, and the employee who encountered him feared for her life, experienced psychological injuries, and felt betrayed by her employer.

This case also demonstrates the importance of effective communication. Although all four supervisors understood the original plan for the mock robbery, the changes apparently were not shared with everyone. In addition, although the police were contacted in advance, a voicemail message proved to be insufficient notice because the sergeant was away on vacation and did not receive the message right away.

When planning training exercises related to workplace violence, consider all of the possible consequences (i.e., potential physical or psychological injuries), make sure the details of the exercises—and any changes to them—are approved in advance, and notify and consult with the police.