Volume 36, Issue 8, August 2001

LegalEaselegalease

Violent Tendencies
Providing a Safe Workplace in a Violent World
- by David Barron

Francesia La Rose’s supervisor received an unpleasant phone call from La Rose’s former boyfriend. He demanded that La Rose be fired and when the supervisor refused, he replied that he would have to come to the office and kill her. La Rose had already notified her employer of her protective order against the former boyfriend and of her belief that he would follow through with his threat. The next day, he walked into the office, past a security guard—who allegedly had pictures of him—and shot and killed her. La Rose’s family filed a wrongful death action and the employer was forced to settle for a reported $850,000. 

If you think incidents like the one mentioned above don’t happen, think again. Violent situations can even occur in the glass industry. In fact, a former PPG employee in Shelby, N.C., recently shot two employees, killing one and injuring the other, two days after he was fired from his job (see USGlass, April 2001, page 21). 

Workplace Violence on the Rise
Homicide is the leading cause of death in the workplace. More than 1.5 million employees are assaulted in their workplace annually, a number the FBI expects to rise over 2 million in the coming years. The number of violent acts occurring in the workplace is reaching epidemic proportions, yet many employers have no idea how to prevent them. Of course, the main focus of any violence prevention program should be the protection of employee safety and well-being. Employers, though, also have to consider the bottom line issues involved. Nonfatal assaults result in more than 876,000 lost workdays annually, and employers lose an estimated $4.2 billion annually due to workplace violence. Violent acts against employees open employers up to potentially serious legal consequences. Employers often feel there is nothing they can do to deal with these problems until they actually occur. This is a very dangerous approach. 

Contrary to the beliefs of many employers, state workers’ compensation statutes do not provide the exclusive remedy for injuries or death arising out of an individual’s employment. Employees and their heirs can also bring their claims to court, alleging negligence-based theories such as negligent security, a failure to warn and negligent hiring.

Violence Prevention Programs
Should such circumstances exist, the resulting liability of the employer can be staggering. In May 1999, a $7.9-million judgment was rendered against an employer when a recently terminated employee went on a shooting spree, killing two employees. An employer is in a much better position to avoid similar situations and defend against such a suit if it maintains a strong violence-prevention program, which could include:

• A zero-tolerance policy prohibiting all verbal and physical threats, violent acts and weapons in the workplace;

• Encouragement of employees to report immediately to management any violence they witness or experience;

• A procedure for prompt, remedial action up to and including discharge against any employee that engages in    threatening behavior or acts of violence;

• Background screening for applicants to determine any history of past violence;

• Instruction to employees and management on how to recognize words and conduct likely to lead to violent behavior;

• Training of managers on techniques for responding to potential violence;

• Adequate security measures, which could include on-site security, panic buttons, cameras, proper lighting and access cards.

Without such procedures in place, not only are you open to liability, you risk the safety and security of your employees. While a violence-prevention program has the obvious benefit of protecting your employees, it also has the indirect benefit of increasing employee morale and productivity.

A recent Gallup poll found that two out of every three employees do not feel secure at work. Workers who fear for their safety at work are more likely to be absent and less likely to feel an allegiance to the company.

No violence-prevention plan will ever be foolproof - no even the Secret Service has a 100-percent track record. There is always the potential for violence to slip through the cracks. However, if you make sufficient efforts to prevent violence and you have the resources to promptly and properly respond to it, your liability will be limited greatly.

David Barron is an attorney at Alaniz and Schraeder in Houston. He represents employers in employment-related matters.

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USG

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