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On July 13, 2018 the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals released its opinion in Lawler & Cole CPAs, LLC, and Alabama Retail Association d/b/a Alabama Retail Comp v. Donald Cole which was on appeal for the Marion County Circuit Court. In the underlying case the employee’s estate filed a motion for summary judgment on its claim for death benefits based on the employee’s death as a result of a former client shooting her in her office. The employer also filed a motion for summary judgment which was denied. The trial court found that the employee’s death occurred in and arose out of the employee’s employment with the employer.
The parties agreed with the facts of the circumstances of the employee’s death in that the employee had served as the accountant for a Mr. Jimmy Dale Cooper since at least the 1980s. At some point in handling Mr. Cooper’s business, Mr. Cooper was audited and Mr. Cooper ultimately refused to comply with the lawful request of the Alabama Department of Industrial Relations. The employee and her employer subsequently ceased to handle Mr. Cooper’s business at which time the employee told Mr. Cooper she did not want any hard feelings between them because they were friends and they had worked together for such a long time but the employer could no longer handle his business. In February of 2016 Mr. Cooper entered the premises of the employer and ultimately shot and killed the employee. The evidence presented established that Mr. Cooper had stated that he was upset and going to shot the employee because he blamed the employee for the tax problems in his past. Nothing in the evidence established that Mr. Cooper and the employee had any sort of personal disagreement.
Under the Alabama Workers’ Compensation Act, the unexpected willful assault upon an employee by another person constitutes an accident for the purpose of the Act and any injury resulting from shall be compensable if the rational mind can trace the resultant injury or death to a proximate cause set in motion by the employment and not some other agency. SeeGarrett v. Gadsden Cooperage Co., 96 So. 188 1923 and Beverley v. V. Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse, 682 So. 2d 1360, 136, (Ala. Civ. App. 1996). Furthermore, the supporting case law indicates that the employment can still be the approximate cause if the assault was not foreseeable as a natural and anticipated risk of the employment.
In this case, the employer was arguing that the length of time between the interaction between the employee and Mr. Cooper supported that there was something personal that resulted in the employee being killed or that at the very least it was unrelated due to the gap in time. However, the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals pointed out that the plain language of the statue, § 25-5-1(9) clearly and unambiguously provides that the intentional assault would not arise out of the employment if it was committed upon the employee because of reasons personal to the employee and not because of his/her status as an employee or because of his/her employment. In this case, the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals stated that despite the fact that there was a significant lapse in time between the employment related act and the employee ultimately being killed, the evidence was undisputed that Mr. Cooper intentionally assaulted and killed the employee not out of personal ill will but solely because of the employee’s work performed on Mr. Cooper’s taxes. Immediately before opening fire on the employee Mr. Cooper stated his intent to kill the employee because she “f***** (his) taxes”. The Court specifically rejected any contention that an assault would be considered purely personal because of the long passage of time between the professional relationship between Mr. Cooper. Furthermore, while the record may have been vague as to what happened between their professional relationships and the time Mr. Cooper shot the employee it was clear at the time of the assault that Mr. Cooper was angry and blamed the employee for his tax problems and was acting as a result of that. Therefore, the Court of Civil Appeals upheld the trial court’s motion for summary judgment ruling stating that the death of the employee was caused by accident arising out of and occurring in the course of the employee’s employment and therefore, benefits were due to the employee’s estate.
About the Author
The article was written by Joshua G. Holden, Esq. a Member of Fish, Nelson & Holden, LLC, a law firm dedicated to representing employers, self-insured employers and insurance carriers in workers’ compensation and related liability matters. Mr. Holden is AV rated by Martindale-Hubbell, which is the highest rating an attorney can receive. Holden and his firm are members of The National Workers’ Compensation Defense Network (NWCDN). The NWCDN is a national and Canadian network of reputable law firms organized to provide employers and insurers access to the highest quality representation in workers’ compensation and related employer liability fields.