Taking Legal Action After an Assault at Work: Is Your Employer Liable?

Protect your rights after an assault at work. In addition to workers’ comp, your employer and the attacker may be liable for your damages.

While news reports give more attention to mass shooting incidents, there are hundreds of violent assaults in the workplace every day.

More than two million American workers are victims of workplace violence every year.¹

Assaults on workers occur on company premises, at off-site job locations, while making deliveries, and during other business-related activities.

Categories of Workplace Violence

The National Institute for Occupation Safety and Health (NIOSH) tracks four categories of workplace violence:

  • Criminal intent
  • Customer or client
  • Worker-on-worker
  • Personal relationships

The fourth category of workplace violence, personal relationships, almost always targets women.

When you’ve been violently injured on the job, you have a right to expect compensation for your medical bills, lost wages, and more.

Your Legal Rights After an Assault at Work

Workplace violence usually involves assaultive behavior. Injuries from a violent assault can range from scrapes and bruises to broken bones, serious head injuries, and even death. Sexual assault may also occur at the workplace.

Employees injured from an assault at work are entitled to workers’ compensation coverage. Workers’ comp benefits cover payment of medical and therapy bills, out-of-pocket expenses, and about two-thirds of wages lost during treatment and recovery.

If the employers’ gross negligence contributed to the assault, or the employer failed to carry workers’ comp insurance, the injured worker has the right to file a personal injury claim against the employer.

Most courts provide an opportunity for victims of violent crimes to seek restitution from the attacker, or at least give a victim impact statement at the sentencing phase of the criminal trial.

Finally, most state governments offer victim support services to those impacted by violent crimes in and outside of the workplace.

Follow these critical steps after a workplace assault:

  1. Get Medical Care: Get immediate medical attention for your injuries. If you aren’t taken directly to the hospital or urgent care, get a medical evaluation as soon as possible. Don’t wait a few days to see if you’ll feel better later. Make sure the medical provider knows you were attacked while on the job.
  2. Call the Police: Notify the police, if they weren’t already called to the scene of the attack.
  3. Notify Your Employer: As soon as you’re able, tell your employer you were injured on the job.
  4. File a Workers’ Comp Claim:  Telling your employer isn’t enough. You have to file your worker’s comp claim before your state’s deadline. Your employer should give you a claim form and instructions.

Worker’s Compensation and Workplace Assaults

The assault that caused your injuries must occur while you are “within the scope of your employment.” In other words, you were attacked while on the job. Almost all employers are required by state workers’ compensation laws to provide insurance for eligible employees.

If you were performing duties on behalf of your employer when the assault occurred, you could still be covered even if you were off-the-clock.

Your employer might be terrific, but your employer’s insurance company only sees opportunities to save money and will jump at the chance to deny your claim. For example, workers’ comp usually doesn’t cover employees who are injured while commuting to and from work.

If you arrive at work, park your car, and are physically assaulted while walking to the entrance of the business, workers’ comp might not cover you. Then again, you might be covered if your employer was responsible for staffing the parking lot with security guards.

Contact your local State Workers’ Compensation Office for more information about your local rules and deadlines.

Employer Liability for Workplace Violence

In most cases, the employer’s workers’ compensation insurance covers on-the-job injuries. Under certain conditions, an injured employee can claim workers’ comp benefits and file a lawsuit against their employer to seek additional compensation.

Employers have a legal duty of care to provide a safe work environment and to protect their employees from undue harm and physical injury. A safe work environment means you should not be subjected to violence from your employer or anyone else.

Workplace Assaults by Coworkers

The employer’s duty includes taking reasonable actions to keep people with a known history of aggressive behavior off the premises and away from workers.

Employers’ duty to provide a safe environment can include:

  • Running criminal background checks
  • Administering drug tests
  • Checking references
  • Disciplining or firing workers who display aggressive behavior

When your employer doesn’t take reasonable actions to protect you from workplace violence, and you are injured, you may have the right to file a personal injury claim or lawsuit in addition to your workers’ comp claim.

Unlike workers’ comp, your lawsuit can seek compensation from your employer for all your damages, including the costs of medical and mental health treatment, lost wages, and emotional distress.

Your attorney will have to prove your employer failed to protect you, and the failure constituted gross negligence or a malicious disregard for your safety.

Example: Employer Kept a Violent Worker

Gerry was a high school student who made good grades and was never in trouble. To save money for college, he worked part-time at a fast food restaurant owned by Mr. Smith.

After a fellow employee quit and walked off the job, Mr. Smith needed to fill the position immediately, so he hired Sam without doing a background check.

A couple of employees knew Sam had a criminal record with several convictions for violent crimes. They met with Mr. Smith and told him that they feared for their safety if Sam was hired. Mr. Smith ignored their concerns.

Within a week, several coworkers saw Sam threatening to hurt Gerry. Gerry told Mr. Smith about the threats and that he feared for his safety, but Mr. Smith took no action.

Three days later while Gerry was emptying the trash, Sam attacked and severely beat him. Gerry sustained a concussion, a fractured collarbone, and a broken nose.

After seeking legal advice, his parents helped Gerry file a workers’ compensation claim. Their attorney also filed a lawsuit on Gerry’s behalf, alleging that “but for” Mr. Smith’s gross negligence and wanton disregard for Gerry’s safety, he would not have been seriously injured.

The court ruled that Mr. Smith’s actions in hiring Sam and repeatedly ignoring his threats constituted a basic failure to keep his premises safe for Gerry and his coworkers.

The court awarded Gerry $100,000 for his medical expenses, out-of-pocket costs, all his lost wages, and a substantial amount for his pain and suffering. The court also awarded Gerry’s attorneys’ fees.

Non-Coworker Attacks at Work

If your boyfriend’s ex unexpectedly shows up at the department store where you work and punches you in the nose, your employer is probably not liable for your injuries. The employer could not know that someone with a personal grudge would show up at your workplace.

You might even have a tough time getting workers’ comp to pay for your broken nose, especially if you went outside with the person before they hit you.

Aside from attacks arising from a worker’s personal relationships, there are many workplace situations that put an employee at increased risk for violence. When your employer knows, or should know that workers could be in danger, the employer has a duty to take reasonable safety precautions.

Reasonable workplace safety precautions might include:

  • Good lighting in employee parking areas
  • Adequate staffing for night shift workers in vulnerable workplaces (like gas stations and convenience stores)
  • Obvious surveillance cameras in operation
  • Secured work areas that require a key or passcode to enter
  • Security guards, if appropriate for the location

Example: Employer Liable for Sexual Assault

Sharon works the second shift at a county hospital. Over the years, that part of town has developed a reputation for drug use and violent crime. The hospital hired security guards to patrol the public parking areas, but employees are required to park behind the hospital, out of sight from the public parking.

Sharon had finished her shift close to midnight and was walking to her car when she was grabbed by a man wearing a mask. She was dragged into an abandoned building in the adjoining lot and violently beaten and raped. When the attacker ran off, Sharon managed to crawl back to the parking lot where another employee spotted her and called for help.

Sharon’s physical injuries healed long before her emotional injuries. Her nursing career was over.

Through her attorney, Sharon sued the hospital administration for her damages. She not only won $250, 000 in compensatory damages, the jury also awarded $500,000 in punitive damages for the hospital’s gross negligence.

Getting the Attacker to Pay Restitution

No matter if you knew the person or you were assaulted by a stranger, one of the first things to do after a workplace assault is to contact the police and file a criminal complaint against your attacker. In most cases of assault at work, there are enough witnesses (coworkers or customers) to give the police probable cause to arrest the attacker under criminal charges.

Make clear to the police your attack was unprovoked. An argument or alleged verbal abuse isn’t usually considered enough provocation; however, if you made threats of imminent injury or death, you may not be able to claim you were unlawfully attacked. In that case, your attacker could say he was defending himself.

A few days after the violent incident, you or your attorney should ask for a copy of the police report.

After a week or so, contact your local district attorney’s office and speak with the prosecutor assigned to your case. Let the prosecutor know you have medical bills and out-of-pocket expenses and need financial help to pay them.

The court may order your attacker to pay “restitution.” If your attacker receives probation, the prosecutor can ask the court to order them to pay for your damages as a condition of probation. That amount isn’t paid directly to you, but it may come through some other court-approved administrator.

If the court agrees and your attacker defaults on a payment, they could be arrested for violating the terms of their probation.

Crime Victim Compensation

Most areas have a state-managed fund to provide financial help for victims of violent crimes and their families.

The benefits of crime victim compensation programs typically pay for:

  • Medical and dental bills
  • Mental health services
  • Funeral or burial expenses
  • Lost wages or support

Violent crime victims with physical injuries should always be eligible for assistance through crime victim funds. Victims who were traumatized but not physically injured may not be covered in every state.

The eligibility requirements will vary from state to state, as will the maximum amount of funds available.

To find help in your state visit the National Association of Crime Victim Compensation Boards.

Maximizing Your Injury Compensation

If you expect a full recovery from a physical assault with only a few days or weeks missed from work, you can probably handle your workers’ compensation claim on your own.

Serious or potentially disabling workplace injuries are a different story. Severe injuries caused by a workplace assault can be complicated and expensive.

Insurance companies don’t like expensive claims and are more interested in their profit margin than what’s best for you. Most disabled workers received higher compensation with the help of a good worker’s comp attorney.

Lawsuits against employers almost always require legal representation. Your employer has the insurance company and their attorneys working against you. You’ll need an experienced personal injury attorney to stand up to the corporate bullies and win the compensation you’re entitled to.

If you’re the victim of an assault at work, don’t sign away your rights to full compensation. You have too much to lose. Most law firms offer free consultations to injury victims. It costs nothing to find out what an experienced personal injury attorney can do for you.

Assault at Work Questions & Answers

Charles R. Gueli, Esq. is a personal injury attorney with over 20 years of legal experience. He’s admitted to the NY State Bar, and been named a Super Lawyer for the NY Metro area, an exclusive honor awarded to the top five percent of attorneys. Charles has worked extensively in the areas of auto accidents,... Read More >>