Is an Employer Liable for an Employee Injured During a Robbery?
Workers’ compensation provides benefits for employees injured “in the course of employment.” Obviously, this means an employer is liable when an employee is injured at work. But what about cases where an employee is not at their normal work station or outside the employer’s property?
Tennessee courts recognize what is known as the “street-risk” rule. As explained by the Tennessee Supreme Court, “the risks of the street are the risks of the employment, if the employment requires the employee’s use of the street.” This does not mean an employee can claim workers’ compensation if he or she is injured while commuting to or from work. Rather, it means if the employee’s job requires them to be on the road—or otherwise involves “indiscriminate exposure to the public”—the employer may be liable for injuries sustained outside the normal workplace.
A common application of the street-risk rule involves automobile accidents. For instance, in a 2008 case, the Tennessee Supreme Court held an employer was not entitled to summary judgment in a claim brought by a public school employee who was injured in a car accident. At the time, the employee was traveling between work locations—she had just stopped for lunch—and the court said even though she was not actually working at time of the accident, the fact her job “required her to be driving” gave her a plausible workers’ compensation claim.
Employees “Randomly” Assaulted On The Job
More recently, the Supreme Court applied the street-risk rule in a different context. The employee in this case worked at a retail store in a Memphis shopping mall. One day, two women entered the store and proceeded to rob the employee, snatching her purse from underneath a desk. The employee pursued the robbers into the mall’s parking lot. As the robbers tried to leave the parking lot in their vehicle, the employee reached in to grab her purse, trapping her arm. The robbers then proceeded to drag the employee through the parking lot.
In addition to serious physical injuries, physicians later diagnosed the employee with post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of the incident. The employer refused to pay workers’ compensation for the PTSD, arguing what happened in the parking lot did not occur in the course of the employee’s employment. A trial court, and later the Tennessee Supreme Court, disagreed and awarded the employee disability benefits. The street risk doctrine applied here because the employee was “indiscriminately exposed to the general public,” i.e. she worked a customer service job in a busy mall.
It is important to note these types of “neutral assault” cases—that is, instances where an employee is randomly attacked “outside the employment relationship”—do not always result in workers’ compensation awards. The courts must consider the specific facts and circumstances of such cases. For example, in the case above, the court noted the store’s failure to provide a secure location for storing employee valuables, as well as the employee’s belief there was store property in her purse, as factors in awarding her benefits.
The fact-specific nature of these cases emphasize the importance of working with an experienced Tennessee workers’ compensation attorney. If you live in the Clinton or Knoxville areas and require advice, contact the offices of Fox, Farley, Willis & Burnette right away.