Not long ago, the families of two men killed when a fired worker went on a shooting rampage won a $7.9 million verdict from a jury that found the company negligent in protecting them. The jury awarded $3.9 million to the family of Gerald Allman and $4 million to the family of Frank Knox, both of whom were shot and killed on May 17, 1995, by James Floyd Davis at a plant in North Carolina. The key issue at the civil trial was whether company officials properly protected employees from Davis, who was fired two days earlier because of a string of violent incidents.
“This verdict shows that companies cannot ignore a real, credible threat of workplace violence,” said the attorney who represented the Allman family. “This man was a ticking time bomb, and the management knew it yet did nothing to protect its employees.”
Workplace violence is now the leading security risk among large companies, based on a recent study by Pinkerton’s of Fortune 1000 security executives. The National Safe Workplace Institute calculates that a single episode of serious workplace violence, which includes employee sabotage, can cost employers $250,000 or more in lost work time and legal expenses. Victims of workplace violence can sue their employer under an assortment of legal theories, including negligent hiring, negligent retention, negligent failure to protect employees and to maintain a safe environment, negligent failure to create an incident-reporting system and even premises liability.
Every employer should have a workplace violence prevention program. The elements of a program should include:
- Company workplace violence policy statement
- Threat-assessment team
- Hazard assessment
- Workplace-hazard control and prevention
- Training and education
- Incident reporting, investigation, follow-up and evaluation
- Responsible record keeping
Although such a program cannot guarantee a violence-free workplace, it would go a long way toward protecting employees and the employer from such incidents and costly legal liabilities. Some employers who have such programs invest in employee-assistance programs and toll-free hot lines as avenues for employees to vent their feelings. They also consider a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to workplace violence in all of its forms, including verbal abuse, written abuse and visual violence.
Management awareness and employee training is a key element in any workplace violence prevention program. Employees can be trained how to handle stress, techniques for recognizing the potential for violence and how to communicate and resolve conflicts effectively. A good place to begin is to conduct a self-assessment exercise or survey to assess to what extent the company has taken steps to prevent and/or report workplace violence.
J. Kevin Hennessy can be reached at Michael Best & Friedrich at 414-271-6560 or by email.