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Animosity Behind N.C. Factory Worker’s Shooting Shows WCA Doesn’t Apply

09 May, 2023 Chris Parker

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Hickory, NC (WorkersCompensation.com). – Exclusivity clauses in workers’ compensation acts generally don’t apply when a worker assaults a coworker for purely personal reasons.

The question whether the WCA was a surviving spouse’s sole option for seeking some kind of legal redress for his wife’s murder was the issue in Marlow v. TCS Designs, No. COA22-862 (N.C. Ct. App. 05/02/23).

The employee for a commercial furniture manufacturer had argued with her coworker before. In July 2020, she asked the coworker not to sing so loudly, because she was trying to listen to music on her earphones. The coworker became irate. On Jan. 4, 2021, another confrontation ended with the coworker threatening to "wipe the floor" with the employee and "whip her ass."

A few weeks later, the coworker went to her car, retrieved a gun, returned to the factory, and shot the employee twice in the head at point-blank range. The employee died from the gunshot wounds that day.

When the employee’s surviving spouse sued the company for negligence, the company asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit. It argued that the Workers’ Compensation Act provided the husband’s sole remedy.

Workers' Comp 101: What does "exclusive remedy" mean? Generally, the North Carolina Workers' Compensation Act provides the exclusive remedy available to employees seeking relief for work-related injuries resulting from the acts or omissions of their employers. In other words, employees cannot bring tort claims against their employers for work-related injuries -- instead, they must seek workers' compensation benefits as their only remedy.

Under North Carolina’s exclusivity provision, where an employee and their employer are subject to and have complied with the provisions of the Workers’ Compensation Act, the rights and remedies granted to the employee under the Act exclude all other rights and remedies of the employee. N.C. Gen. Stat. § 97-10.1 (2022).

The appeals court explained that a lawsuit falls under the WCA if:

(1) The injury was caused by an accident;

(2) The injury was sustained in the course of the employment; or

(3) The injury arose out of the employment

The only issue the parties disputed in this case was whether the employee’s death arose out of her employment.

The court noted that whether an injury arises out of employment relates to the origin or cause of the injury. It stated that, in North Carolina, courts consider whether the injury is a natural and probable consequence of the nature of the employment.

An intentional assault in the workplace by a fellow employee or third party does not arise out of the employment unless a job-related motivation or some other causal relation between the job and the assault exists.

If one employee assaults another solely under the impulse of anger, or hatred, or revenge, or vindictiveness, not growing out of but entirely foreign to the employment, the injury should be treated as the voluntary act of the assailant and not as one arising out of or incident to the employment.

In this case, there was nothing connecting the tragic event to the employee’s job, other than the fact that it occurred at work and the injury was inflicted by a coworker.

While the employees had been involved in two verbal altercations before, there was no evidence that the shooter was motivated by some job-related consideration or that there was some other causal relation between the job and the decision to shoot. In short, the incident was not a natural and probable consequence of the nature of the decedent’s employment.

Stated differently, the decedent, when she reported to work that day in the furniture factory, “would not have considered being shot twice in the head at point-blank range as a possible consequence of that work,” the court wrote. Instead, the shooting arose out of the coworker’s personal animosity toward the decedent.

Because the death did not arise of the decedent’s employment, the WCA’s exclusive remedy provision did not apply.

The court affirmed the trial’s refusal to dismiss the spouse’s negligence lawsuit.


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