WorkCompCentral has an article about an interesting case involving an employee’s suicide. In an unpublished decision, the Court of Appeal held that a civil suit or wrongful death brought by a worker’s family was barred by the exclusive remedy rule.

The suit alleges that the worker in this case, Mr. Coffman, suffered through several years of mistreatment form his co-workers which included profanity, insults, being shoved to the ground and then punched in the face and head multiple times (causing Mr. Coffman to go to the emergency room), having his work gear hidden, having his personal property damaged and hidden, threats of fights, and even having a round point shovel shoved within inches of his face.  If the allegations were true, it seemed that Mr. Coffman was working in a fairly hostile and unpleasant environment. 

After one incident of theft of personal property, Mr. Coffman filed a report with law enforcement.  Due to stress, Mr. Coffman went to the hospital; his blood pressure was elevated, and he was prescribed medication to “help [him] cope.”  He was placed on leave due to emotional distress. He was scheduled to return to work on January 4, 2016. Coffman committed suicide on December 30, 2015.  The civil suit by Mr. Coffman’s family followed.

The suit was dismissed at the trial level based on the exclusive remedy rule.  The Court of Appeal dismissed the suit on the same grounds.

The Court of Appeal noted that workers’ compensation exclusivity bars civil actions based on employer actions that “are a normal part of the employment relationship, such as demotions, promotions, criticism of work practices, and frictions in negotiations as to grievances,” even where such actions are characterized “as manifestly unfair, outrageous, harassment, or intended to cause emotional disturbance resulting in disability”.  The actions alleges in this suit certainly fit this, if true.

The Court of Appeal went on to discuss that conduct that courts have held to be a normal part of the employment relationship for purposes of workers’ compensation exclusivity include, false accusations of misconduct, and efforts to force an employee’s involuntary retirement, as well as yelling, humiliation, and the use of insults and profanities by an employer against an employee, where such conduct “involved criticisms of job performance or other conflicts arising from the employment.”  That certainly fits the facts alleged here, other than the punching and shovel in the face.  However, the Court side-stepped dealing with those facts as employee who took those egregious actions was fired.

The Court noted that each of Coffman’s conflicts with his co-workers also arose directly from his employment and the discharge of their collective work duties.  No matter that these actions involved “yelling, humiliation, and the use of insults and profanities” and were as “manifestly unfair, outrageous, harassment, or intended to cause emotional disturbance resulting in disability”, they were still covered by the exclusive remedy rule. 

Neither the article nor the case report itself state that a workers’ compensation claim was filed.  Given that these actions took place prior to 2016, it would seem a bit late now.

I am sure that many of us out there (myself included) have worked in some rough and tumble workplaces or where management was by “yelling, humiliation, and the use of insults and profanities”.  Nice to know that the Court of Appeal considers that to be “a normal part of the employment relationship for purposes of workers’ compensation exclusivity”.