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HOW PERSONAL IS PERSONAL IN PENNSYLVANIA?
Kevin L. Connors, Esquire
Recently, we were privileged to defend an Employer, against which a workers’ compensation claim was presented, for an Employee who was in the course of making a delivery, when the delivery truck was approached by a masked assailant, who then fired several gunshots into the rear bay of the delivery truck, avoiding aiming at a Co-Employee standing in the front of the back of the delivery truck, and aiming instead at an Employee, who then became the Claimant in the workers’ compensation case, who was standing at the back of the delivery truck trailer, with the masked assailant having made several statements, be it declarations, in the course of firing directly at the injured employee, suggesting that the attack was not work-related, but was personal in nature, resulting in the defense to the claim being raised under Pennsylvania’s “personal animus” defense, which is a defense permitted by Section 301(c)(1) which, in the course of describing what injuries are covered by the Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act, included the statutory declaration “the term ‘injury arising in the course of his employment.’ as used in this article should not include an injury caused by any act of a third person intended to injure the employee because of reasons personal to “employee”, and not directed against him as an employee or because of his employment.”
The personal animus defense in Pennsylvania, as in almost all jurisdictions, is a statutory defense that requires the employer, as opposed to the employee, carrying the burden of proving that an injury alleged by an injured employee to be within the course and scope of employment, is an injury that was caused by the personal animus, i.e., animosity, of a third party to the injured employee.
Case in point, our firm recently successfully defended this workers’ compensation claim that involved a retail delivery employee sustaining several gunshot wounds in the course of making a delivery in a urban residential area that the injured employee claimed was a high crime area, attempting to set up the argument, for compensability, that the injured employee’s gunshot wounds, and related disability thereto, was caused by the employee being exposed to this incident in a high crime area, as opposed to the employer, our client, successfully proving, first before the Workers’ Compensation Judge, and then before Appellate body, that the injured employee’s injuries occurred because of the personal animus of a third party, who intended, in the course of the shooting incident, to wound and/or inflict bodily harm on the injured employee, and not to injure, and/or aim at a co-employee, who, when the shooting occurred, was actually closer to the shooter than the injured employee, with gunshots fired by a male unidentified third party, arriving on a bicycle, as the two employees, injured employee and co-employee, were unloading furniture for delivery to a employer customer.
So when the unidentified assailant, presumed to be a male person, was never identified, was never found by police, with the crime itself never being solved, as to why the injured employee was “targeted”, how can the employer prove that incident was not work-related, and was caused by personal animus, such that the incident and related injuries do not fall under the umbrella of being within the course and scope of employment?
Admittedly, these are not easy questions to answer, with it being obvious concern throughout the litigation of this workers’ compensation claim, being that the claim might ultimately be decided by a Workers’ Compensation Judge sympathetic to the fact that the injured employee was essentially gunned down while on the clock, doing a delivery, in the employer’s business interests, and otherwise not being able to contribute any significant information to the incident investigation, why it occurred, who was involved, and/or what the rationale for this incident was.
In this particular case, the employer conducted a very thorough initial investigation, using its loss prevention specialist, to quickly interview everyone that the injured employee had worked with, as well as to interview the injured employee, prior to any formal claim for workers’ compensation benefits being asserted, and/or prior to any legal representation being secured by the injured employee. It also involved a wider search and investigation into lifestyle issues that may have been confronting the injured employee,that may have influenced third party, girlfriends, lovers, friends, to choose a path of drastic retribution, as contrasted against the convenience of familial conversation, the brutally honest exchange of social offenses impactful on our humanity.
And, yes, this particular claim had a multitude of factors impacting upon it influencing the decision by the employer to challenge the claim on grounds that it did not occur within the course and scope of employment, and that the injuries may have resulted from third party animosity breaching the boundaries of the course and scope of employment.
No less true, a bigger question is how do you win the unwinnable case, when you begin with an event that seems drastic on its face, although leaking sufficient clues to point towards the events starting before the furniture delivery, coupled with the fact that the shooter aimed around a co-employee who stood closer to the shooter than the injured employee, with the assailant only aiming at the injured employee, and gutterly whispering “I am only here for the big guy”, there being very different physical attributions between the employee and the co-employee, who was not wounded in the incident, was never struck by any of the gunshots, and, after ducking for cover, was not confronted by the assailant, who continued only firing at the injured employee.
And, yes, the claim investigation did reveal that the injured employee had talked with several co-employees, prior to the incident, that there was unsolvable tensions existing in his life, to include girlfriends, lovers, rent issues, with every potential witness being contacted, and with the witnesses presenting corroborating testimony to the Workers’ Compensation Judge, acting as factfinder, that the injured employee had personal conflicts in his life under personal conflicts in his life unrelated to his employment which, when coupled with the actual facts of the assault statement by shooter, shooter only aiming at the Claimant, than injured employee, shooter never aiming at the Co-Employee, all of which then became grounds for the Workers’ Compensation Judge to deny the compensability of the claim, a result then affirmed by the Appellate body, with both the Judge as factfinder, and the Appellate body as the Affirming Court, finding that Pennsylvania’s “personal animus” defense did apply, that the assault, and related injuries were not injuries that occurred within the course and scope of employment, that the assault and injuries occurred as a result of a third party having personal animus towards the injured employee, a Decision which was rendered by both the fact-finding Judge and the Affirming Appellate Court as predicated upon both the statutory implication of Pennsylvania’s personal animus statute, as well as the individual facts of this particular claim and litigation.
Yes, no doubt, this is a relatively rare case, hard to win, with it being no less true that a different Workers’ Compensation Judge may have found a different result, although our client rightly believes that this was the right decision based on the facts presented to the deciding Workers’ Compensation Judge.
Obviously, very few workers’ compensation cases will potentially implicate compensability issues under the “personal animus” defense, although it is a defense that should be analyzed whenever there might be injuries involving interaction with third parties, particularly when the third parties have interacted with the injured employee before the alleged incident, and/or the alleged incident itself suggests third party interference, as well as potentially being a necessary evaluation when there are incidents between employees, be it horseplay, be it physical in-fighting, physical confrontations, etc.
And then how do we, as defense law firm, representing the Employer and its Third Party Administrator, assess any credit or responsibility for the ultimate outcome of the Workers’ Compensation Decision, be it the denial of the workers’ compensation claim, beyond it being a moment of personal satisfaction, that a workers’ compensation case has been decided on the facts as applied to the legal standards, as well as the acute understanding that the outcome achieved in this particular case can only be achieved with the integration of employer investigation, Third Party Administrator continuing investigation, and support for defense recommendations made by defense counsel during the prosecution of the claim, and for all three parties, employer, administrator, and defense counsel coordinating their efforts for the benefit of the employer, to develop the necessary facts to establish a legitimate statutory defense to a claim involving irrefutable injuries.
Trust us, we just get it! It is trust well spent!
We defend Employers, Self-Insureds, Insurance Carriers, and Third Party Administrators in Workers’ Compensation matters throughout Pennsylvania. We have over 100 years of cumulative experience defending our clients against compensation-related liabilities, with no attorney in our firm having less than ten (10) years of specialized experience, empowering our Workers’ Compensation practice group attorneys to be more than mere claim denials, enabling us to create the factual and legal leverage to expeditiously resolve claims, in the course of limiting/reducing/extinguishing our clients’ liabilities under the Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act.
Every member of our Workers’ Compensation practice group is AV rated. Our partnership with the NWCDN magnifies the lens for which our professional expertise imperiously demands that we always be dynamic and exacting advocates for our clients, navigating the frustrating and form-intensive minefield pervasive throughout Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation practice and procedure.