How Do Workers' Compensation And Wrongful Death Intersect Under Virginia Law?

25 May 2017
 Categories: Law, Articles

While workers may occasionally crack jokes about wishing they could harm a coworker or boss, these claims should be taken quite seriously in all workplaces. Indeed, workplace violence accounts for 17 percent of all workplace fatalities (including accidental fatalities), with homicides claiming responsibility for 10 percent of workers killed.

However, as one Virginia widower recently learned after his wife was murdered on the job, workplace violence, even violence that results in death, is not subject to litigation under Virginia's wrongful death laws. Instead, this widower has been instructed to bring his claim under workers' compensation laws, as his wife's fatal injury took place on the job and therefore fit within the bounds of the employer's workers' compensation policy. 

Read on to learn more about why this situation was barred under Virginia's wrongful death laws and instead subject to workers' compensation laws as the prime means for recovery.

When must workplace violence claims be litigated under workers' compensation laws rather than other Virginia tort laws?

In a recent case (Tyrone Reed Scott v. CG Bellkor LLC), the U.S. District Court in Richmond held that because the worker's death was rightfully classified as a "workplace accident," workers' compensation provided the exclusive remedy under law.

In this case, the decedent (Della Scott) was working as a leasing agent at an apartment complex in Richmond. Although Della had previously reported concerns about the level of criminal activity at and around the complex and had requested management schedule additional security patrols or take other safety measures, this lawsuit alleged that no such actions were taken prior to Della's death. Della was robbed and fatally stabbed by a customer who had visited the apartment complex looking for a former employee. 

Della's surviving spouse, Tyrone, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the apartment complex, alleging it was negligent in failing to protect its employees from harm. The federal district court dismissed this lawsuit for failing to state a claim after finding that Tyrone's exclusive remedy was under the Virginia Workers' Compensation Act (VWCA) rather than state or federal tort laws.

Using a three-part test to determine whether Della's death was a compensable workplace injury, the district court considered: 1) whether the injury was an accident; 2) whether it reasonably arose from Della's employment; and 3) whether the injury took place in the course of her employment. Because the answer to all three questions was "yes," the court held that the VWCA clearly applied -- even though Della's death was caused by an intentional act and not a "true" accident.

What can this mean for other Virginia claims that involve an act of violence at work?

Although this case was decided in the federal district court and its holdings are only binding on other federal courts, this decision may have ripple effects in Virginia's state courts when it comes to litigating claims of workplace violence resulting in serious injury or death. This is especially true because of the language the federal court used to characterize the criminal act.

Despite the fact that Della's death was deliberately caused by another person, the court found that even intentional torts may be considered accidents for purposes of the VWCA. Because the VWCA applies in all cases of "injury by accident," being murdered or severely assaulted on the job would fall into this category, even if the act was completely premeditated and did not fall into the common understanding of the word "accident."

This can mean that injuries caused by disgruntled customers and employees, even in situations where an employer was clearly negligent in failing to protect employees from harm, may be a matter for the workers' compensation board rather than the civil courts. You can discover more on what qualifies as a workers compensation case by contacting a law firm in your area.