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Estate of Employee Stabbed at Work Could Not Sue Employer in Court

On the morning of September 20, 2012, Keith Readus was working at an automobile assembly plant when co-worker Jeffrey Hunt stabbed him to death. Hunt fled the scene and later committed suicide. Readus’s son, Keith, then sued his father’s former employer for negligently hiring/re-hiring Hunt. He alleged the employer knew about Hunt’s history of violent conduct, including “threats of physical harm against coworkers, carrying a weapon in the workplace, and being arrested and convicted after physically assaulting another individual in 1997.” Estate of Readus by Gardner v. Chrysler Grp., LLC, No. 338273, 2019 WL 637281, at *1 (Mich. Ct. App. Feb. 14, 2019).

In Michigan, an employee’s sole remedy against an employer for a work-related injury sustained on the job is under the Worker’s Disability Compensation Act (WDCA). A narrow exception to this exclusive remedy is recognized for cases involving an intentional tort. An intentional tort would be when “an employee is injured as a result of a deliberate act of the employer and the employer specifically intended an injury.” The law requires that in order for an employer to have intended the injury, the employer must have had both (1) actual knowledge that an injury was certain to occur and (2) willfully disregarded that knowledge. This is an extremely high standard to meet.

The Michigan Court of Appeals determined that the Estate of Readus had not met this high standard. The court reasoned there was no evidence that the employer had actual knowledge of Hunt’s violent propensities merely because he had been convicted 15 years earlier.  There was no evidence anywhere, including in Hunt’s employment file, that Hunt had been involved in an assault or that he had been convicted of an assault.

The Court said that even if the employer had known of the assault and conviction, it still would not have changed the Court’s opinion that no intentional tort exception was established. Plaintiff would still have had to show that the stabbing and death was an injury that was “certain to occur.”   Hunt’s 1997 assault was of a “known enemy” and occurred outside of work.  The assault against Readus occurred in the workplace without provocation.  The court stated, “the mere fact that Hunt once committed a serious physical assault 15 years earlier did not render his subsequent attack on decedent certain to occur.” Id. at *6.  Because Plaintiff did not meet the burden of establishing an intentional tort exception to the WDCA’s exclusive remedy provision, his claim was dismissed.   

An employee must meet a very high standard to avoid the WDCA’s exclusive remedy provision.   The litigant must first show the employer had actual knowledge that an injury was certain to occur. In addition, s/he must also show that the employer willfully disregarded such knowledge. 

When presented with claims that are arguably subject to the WDCA exclusive remedy provision, defense counsel need to file the appropriate motion to dismiss. In addition, counsel should coordinate with the employer’s workers’ compensation counsel to avoid inconsistencies and insure appropriate arguments/defenses are being made in both forums.

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