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Is Sexual Assault at Work Covered Under Workers’ Compensation?


Under normal circumstances, if you are injured on the job your employer is required to pay workers’ compensation benefits to compensate you for medical expenses and lost wages. Workers’ compensation in Tennessee is designed to be an “exclusive remedy”–i.e., you cannot file a separate personal injury lawsuit against your employer. But what if your workplace injury was caused by an assault, rather than an accident? Is workers’ compensation still considered an exclusive remedy in such cases?

Restaurant Faces Trial Over Ex-Manager’s Rape by Co-Worker

According to the Tennessee Supreme Court, there are three types of workplace assaults that may come into play:

  1. An assault with an “inherent connection” to employment, such a disagreement over pay or termination that escalates into violence;
  2. An assault that is “inherently private” and “imported into the employment setting” but is not “exacerbated” by employment; and
  3. An assault caused by a “neutral force,” including a random assault by someone “outside the employment relationship.”

Only assaults in the first category automatically fall within the scope of workers’ compensation. Assaults in the second category do not. And with the third category, it depends on the “facts and circumstances of the employment,” according to the Supreme Court.

Consider this recent decision by the Tennessee Court of Appeals. The unidentified plaintiff in this case was a manager at the defendant’s restaurant. One evening, she was in her office doing paperwork when a “masked man entered brandishing a gun.” He robbed the safe inside the office and then proceeded to rape the plaintiff.

It was later discovered the rapist was another employee at the restaurant. He testified that he robbed the safe because he needed “money for getting out of trouble in Mexico.” He did not say what his motive was for raping the plaintiff.

The plaintiff sued both her assailant and the defendant. With respect to her former employer, the plaintiff alleged “negligence, gross negligence, negligent hiring, vicarious liability, and constructive discharge.” The defendant moved for summary judgment in its favor, alleging the plaintiff’s rape fell within the “exclusive remedy” of workers’ compensation.

The trial court rejected the defendant’s motion. The Court of Appeals agreed with the trial judge. While this assault “does not neatly fit” into any of the Supreme Court’s three categories, the appeals court said, “the third category, with the requirement that we consider the facts and circumstances of employment to determine whether the injury arose out of employment, is most applicable.”

Based on the assailant’s testimony, the rape was not related to the robbery. That is, the assailant did not assault the plaintiff in order to obtain her cooperation. He had already completed the robbery and the plaintiff was tied up. Based on this, the defendant could not plausibly maintain that the sexual assault was an “inherent risk” of the plaintiff’s employment.

Have You Been Assaulted and Need Legal Advice?

Nobody should ever have to go to work afraid they may be the victim of assault, much less rape. If you have suffered a workplace injury unrelated to your actual employment, it is important to speak with a qualified Knoxville personal injury lawyer who can advise you of your legal options. Contact the offices of Fox & Farley, Attorneys at Law, if you need immediate legal assistance.


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