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Georgia Court of Appeals Confirms Exclusive Remedy of Workers’ Comp Applies to Workplace Murder Pending Appeal to Supreme Court of Georgia

Written by: Michael Memberg, Esq.

The Georgia Court of Appeals was recently asked to decide if a horrific case of workplace violence constituted an injury as defined by the Georgia Workers’ Compensation Act.  In summary, a convicted felon lied on a job application to get hired by a staffing company.  One day while on a work assignment, the felon tragically shot a co-worker in the back of the head before sexually assaulting a female employee.  The victim’s mother brought a wrongful death suit against the staffing company and the supervising employer, but the trial court granted summary judgment based on the exclusive remedy provisions of the Georgia Workers’ Compensation Act.

On February 15, 2016, the Court of Appeals issued its first decision in Sturgess v. OA Logistics Services, finding that the murder did not arise out of the victim’s employment because there was no connection between the victim’s employment and the violence.  As such, the victim’s mother was not limited to the exclusive remedy of workers’ compensation.  However, after a motion for reconsideration by the employers, the Court of Appeals issued a superseding decision on March 10, 2016 that took the opposite position and deemed the victim’s death to have been work-related.  The parties are currently awaiting a decision from the Supreme Court of Georgia as to whether they will take the case on appeal.

The ultimate issue in this case boiled down to whether the seemingly random murder was actually related to the victim’s employment.  The 2004 Court of Appeals decision in Chapparal Boats v. Heath weighed heavily on both the initial and superseding opinions in Sturgess.  In Chapparal Boats, a claimant’s knee popped while she was walking into work, and the Court of Appeals found that was not compensable because the risk of injury while walking was not work-related.  The Chapparal Boats decision essentially holds that an injury is not compensable under the Georgia Workers’ Compensation Act if it would have occurred regardless of whether the employee was at work.  However, if the employee is exposed to a common risk because of his job duties, the accident is work-related.

Certainly, an employee’s knee popping is not the same as being murdered by a co-worker, but the cases are both viewed under the same positional risk theory.  When first applying Chapparal Boats to the facts in Sturgess, the Court of Appeals initially determined that the victim was essentially in the “wrong place at the wrong time.” In other words, the risk of being murdered was totally independent of his employment, so the murder did not arise out of his employment.  However, on reconsideration, the Court of Appeals found the murder only occurred because the victim was at work when it happened.  As such, the murder was found to be work-related.  The Court of Appeals also clarified that the felon’s staffing company employer was also entitled to tort immunity even though the felon’s temporary work assignment at the direct employer did not have a specific end date.

We anticipate the appeal will be taken given how the current Sturgess decision serves to expand the exclusive remedy provision in Georgia.  In addition, the intriguing history of the reversal by the Court of Appeals less than one month after an initial decision tends to make this a more prominent case that Supreme Court of Georgia may feel compelled to address.  We would also note that the statutory language regarding the exclusive remedy was amended as of July 1, 2015 in response to the 2013 Georgia Court of Appeals decision of Pitts v. City of Atlanta that eroded the exclusive remedy provision by allowing the estate of a deceased worker to pursue a breach of contract claim after a subcontractor failed to carry adequate liability insurance.  The new language further clarifies that no other civil remedy may arise out of a work-related injury other than a workers’ compensation claim. Ultimately, the Supreme Court of Georgia is likely to want to weigh in further on the exclusive remedy provision given the recent developments in that arena.

We will provide further updates when the Supreme Court of Georgia takes action.  If you have any questions about this decision, please do not hesitate to contact Hall Booth Smith’s workers’ comp attorneys.