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Minnesota Courts Decide Cases Regarding Workplace Violence

August 2013

By: Phoebe A. Taurick, Esq.

Workplace violence is once again grabbing headlines in legal circles. Recently, Minnesota courts have decided at least two cases dealing with workplace violence that: (1) remind employers of potential liability for ignoring this issue; and (2) instruct employers on how to address these delicate situations.

Beneke v. Accent Signage Systems, Inc. concerns the tragic workplace shooting by an angry terminated employee that left six employees dead, while Romano v. ING ReliaStar Life Insurance involves an employee who was terminated after alleging her supervisor assaulted her with a stack of binders. Both cases emanated from a strong belief that the employers improperly handled potentially violent employees.

The first case, Beneke, resulted from a heartbreaking turn of events at Accent Signage Systems, Inc. where a terminated employee returned to the workplace with a gun, killing the owner and five other employees. In the wake of this tragedy, the estate of one of the deceased employees sued the employer alleging, among other things, gross negligence, negligent retention and negligent supervision. The court said there was enough evidence to allow a jury to decide if the employer was grossly negligent in how it handled the employee's termination. Such evidence included, but was not limited to, an indication that the employer knew the employee had a propensity toward violence and that the employer knew or should have known that the employee might act out against others in a manner likely to cause physical harm.

The second case, Romano, arose out of an alleged workplace assault resulting in an employee's termination. The employee claimed her supervisor harassed and bullied her. The employer investigated her complaints and determined the supervisor was merely providing "constructive criticism." Thereafter, the employee wrote a rebuttal in the "comments" section of a performance review stating she felt her supervisor treated her inappropriately. When the employee went to her supervisor's office to discuss the rebuttal the employee claimed her supervisor became enraged and struck the employee on the left side of her face with a stack of three ring binders and notebooks. The employee reported the alleged assault and after an investigation human resources concluded the alleged assault likely did not happen as reported, due to inconsistencies in the employee's report. Thereafter, the employee was terminated.

The employee sued the employer for unlawful retaliation under the Minnesota Whistleblower Act (MWA), battery, and negligent supervision. Regarding her termination, the court agreed with the employee and stated there was enough evidence to allow a jury to decide if she was terminated in violation of the MWA for reporting illegal behavior. Importantly, the court found it persuasive that the employer failed to follow its Workplace Violence Policy when it investigated the matter. Regarding the battery claim, the court did not allow the employee to proceed, in part, because the supervisor's violent actions were not foreseeable under the circumstances. Finally, the court found that the employer was not negligent in its supervision of the relationship between the employee and her supervisor because the employer investigated prior complaints between them and had no reason to believe the supervisor would assault the plaintiff.

As is evidenced by these two cases (and many others that have come before it) employers face numerous legal issues when it comes to workplace violence and can face a host of different claims ranging from retaliation to negligence. The crux of these cases often boils down to whether the employer knew or should have known that the employee posed a risk of physical harm to himself/herself and others. In other words, if an employer can reasonably see the warning signs that an employee poses a threat, then the employer has some duty to act. Exactly what action should be taken depends on the circumstances, but what is clear is that the employer cannot just sit back and do nothing.

Employers wanting to learn more about how to recognize the warning signs and what options are available to best protect the company and its workforce are encouraged to attend Wessels Sherman's September 18 th webinar presented by attorney Phoebe A. Taurick entitled "Workplace Violence: An Ounce of Prevention is Worth a Pound of Cure." For information on registering for this webinar, please contact Julie Anna Kruse at (952) 746-1700 or [email protected].