Employers can be held liable for injuries suffered by employees who are assaulted by their co-workers, the Minnesota Court of Appeals reiterated in a recent case. The decision highlights the importance of reducing the risk of workplace violence by conducting background checks of potential employees and enforcing anti-violence policies with existing employees.
The case, Hartfiel v. Allison (Jan. 25, 2016), started when an employee of T.J. Potter Trucking, Inc., Raymond Allison, hit co-worker Richard Hartfiel with a three-foot long steel bar while Hartfiel was sitting in his truck. Hartfiel suffered broken bones and other injuries and incurred over $75,000 in medical expenses.
In the resulting lawsuit, Hartfiel claimed that Potter Trucking was liable to him because it negligently hired and retained Allison. In support of his negligent hiring claim, Hartfiel pointed to the fact that Allison had a criminal history that included multiple assault convictions. He alleged that had Potter Trucking done a criminal background check and followed its own standard hiring procedures, they would have known to not hire Allison.
The court acknowledged that Minnesota employers may be held liable for negligent hiring if they fail to use reasonable care in hiring individuals who, through the employment, may pose a threat of injury to members of the public. This means that the scope of pre-employment investigations must be directly related to the severity of risk third parties are subjected to by an incompetent employee (the greater the risk, the more intensive the pre-employment screen should be).
However, the court also noted that employers do not, as a matter of law, have a duty to conduct a criminal background check on prospective employees. The court then rejected Hartfiel’s negligent hiring claim on the basis that Potter Trucking’s pre-employment inquiry was adequate:
Here, the unchallenged evidence shows that, although Allison provided Potter Trucking a release to perform a background check, Potter Trucking checks applicants’ driving records but does not conduct criminal background checks. Typically, Potter Trucking hires people on referral. Potter Trucking followed its standard procedures–it required Allison to submit an application, interviewed him, required him to submit to drug testing, obtained a release for a background check, and relied on a referral from Allison’s previous employer…. The record contains no evidence to suggest that Potter Trucking knew or should have known of Allison’s violent propensities when it hired him.
However, the court allowed Hartfiel’s negligent retention claim to proceed. Quoting a 1993 Minnesota Supreme Court case (Yunker v Honeywell), the court defined negligent retention:
Negligent retention … occurs when, during the course of employment, the employer becomes aware or should have become aware of problems with an employee that indicated his unfitness, and the employer fails to take further action such as investigating, discharge, or reassignment.
Applying that standard to Hartfiel’s claim, the court noted there was evidence that after Allison was hired, he assaulted a subcontractor, but the owner minimized it “because it ‘[was not] work related’ and because ‘boys are boys.'” Other evidence suggested that when Allison thought a foreman had been rude to him, he threatened, “it’s no secret where I live, come on over there and I’ll . . . kick your ass all over the yard.” Because of that evidence, the court allowed the negligent retention claim to proceed to trial:
The previously discussed evidence of Allison’s violent behavior against a Potter Trucking subcontractor in a tavern and threatening behavior toward a Potter Trucking foreman is the type of evidence on which a jury could find that Allison had violent propensities about which Potter Trucking knew or should have known.
The Hartfiel case reminds us that when hiring, employers should conduct pre-employment background checks that are sufficient to determine whether a candidate would pose a threat if hired. The greater the risk, the more intensive the background check should be. The depth of that investigation should be set well before the hiring process begins, and it should be consistently applied.
Moreover, the case reminds us that ignoring acts of workplace violence and threats of harm will subject an employer to the risk of liability for negligent retention. Thus, employers should adopt and enforce policies against workplace violence, and they should not brush off misconduct just because they think “boys are boys.”
For more information about workplace violence or guidance on how to develop or enforce policies and procedures to address these issues, please contact me at [email protected].
The comments posted in this blog are for general informational purposes only. They are not to be considered as legal advice, and they do not establish an attorney-client relationship. For legal advice regarding your specific situation, please consult your attorney.
Copyright 2016 Swenson Lervick Syverson Trosvig Jacobson Schultz Cass, PA