Murdered on the Job: Is the Employer Liable?

Posted on July 05, 2021

When an employee’s actions are linked to aggressive past or present behaviors towards another employee, the employer may be found liable for any injuries or fatalities that occur.

Workplace Threats and Violence

Workplace violence perpetrated by one employee against another is not that common, but it does occur in different ways. It happens in the form of verbal abuse, harassment, sexual abuse, physical attacks, and occasional assaults that have deadly consequences.

Illinois tort liability laws allow employers to be held liable for the actions of their employees. Under tort liability, employers may be held responsible for workplace injuries and deaths caused by negligent hiring, supervision, or retention of their employees. Courts believe that it’s reasonable to hold an employee liable for another employee’s injuries or death if prior actions of possible harm existed and the employer had knowledge of such behaviors.

What is Tort Liability?

A “tort” is some type of wrongful act that causes harm to another person. This definition covers a wide range of actions. Workers’ comp lawyers often handle cases involving workplace tort liability. The legal field of torts is split up into many different subcategories including the mental and physical state of a person who inflicts harm. Tort liability cases commonly involve the negligent actions of another person.

“Intentional torts” are intentional wrongful acts that are committed on purpose. The person committing the harmful act doesn’t have to actually mean harm, but his/her negligent actions end up hurting another person anyway. Pranks that result in injuries are a good example. In some intentional tort cases seen by workers’ comp lawyers, the person committing the wrongful act intends to cause harm. Such cases involve:

  • Harassment and emotional distress
  • Defamation of character
  • Invasion of privacy
  • Verbal and physical abuse
  • Sexual harassment and/or assault
  • Battery and acts of violence

If an employee is guilty of any of these actions in the workplace, the likelihood of him/her committing similar future actions is significantly greater. Calling a fellow employee derogatory names, using sexual language or gestures, or having violent outbursts in the workplace may indicate a likelihood of future violence.

Holding Employers Liable for Employee Actions

In 2017, the United States Court of Appeals ruled against a Chicago Home Depot for negligent actions of a supervisor that lead to the death of a Home Depot employee. A lawsuit filed by Chicago workers’ comp lawyers alleged that the manager’s negligent retention of a supervisor who had a known history of sexual harassment resulted in the strangulation death of a pregnant fellow employee.

According to case files, the female employee complained to her manager repeatedly about how her supervisor treatment her. She stated that he constantly called her names like “whore,” “slut,” and “bitch” in front of other workers and customers. She also stated that he required her to share a hotel room on business trips that were required by Home Depot management. Under the risk of being fired, the woman was eventually forced to attend an out-of-state wedding with her supervisor where she was strangled to death in a hotel room.

Although the District Court found it unreasonable to allege successfully that Home Depot had a duty to protect the woman from her supervisor’s criminal conduct, the Appellate Court disagreed. They ruled that a reasonable jury could find the employer guilty because the supervisor’s known prior history of sexual harassment and misconduct towards the woman indicated the possibility of future acts of sexual harassment and potential sexual acts of violence.

Cases regarding negligent hiring, supervision, and retention of an employee usually involve scenarios where there are acts of physical violence, because other actions may be more difficult to prove in court. Without a workers’ comp lawyer who can show documented evidence of workplace harassment, verbal abuse, defamation of character, and sexual misconduct, such claims may be denied.

In the Home Depot case, facts show that the employer ignored the woman’s repeated reports of sexual misconduct and the fact that her supervisor intimidated her into going on a trip with threats of job loss. It’s quite possible that she would never have put herself in a position of being alone with him had he not been in a position of power over her employment. Although it’s unclear why the employer did not terminate the supervisor’s employment given his history, his decision to ignore her complaints and do nothing eventually led to her rape and murder.

The Home Depot case addresses important questions about an employer’s responsibility to protect employees in the workplace. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Agency (OSHA), all employers have a duty to protect their workers from harm by providing a safe work environment. If workers are injured or killed on the job, employers may face liabilities including large monetary fines, lawsuits by workers’ comp lawyers, loss of business license, and permanent closure of business.