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She was shot to death at work: Will her husband get comp benefits?

When is a victim’s spouse eligible for workers’ comp benefits following a death due to workplace violence? This active shooter case spells out what the law says in one state. 

Linda Cole was a partner in accounting firm Lawler and Cole CPAs LLC in Alabama. On Feb. 10, 2016, Cole was shot to death at work by a long-term client of the firm, Jimmy Dale Cooper.

Here’s what led up to the attack and what happened on the day of the shooting:

Cooper’s business underwent an audit for unpaid sales tax. During the audit, Cooper refused to comply with requests from the Alabama Department of Industrial Relations.

Cole told Cooper she wouldn’t be able to provide him accounting services if he didn’t comply with the law. Cooper said he’d find another accountant. Cooper asked for a final bill in 2007 or 2008, but Cole told him they were friends, she didn’t want any hard feelings and he owed her nothing.

The audit resulted in fines against Cooper for failing to properly classify certain workers as employees and for failing to pay appropriate withholding taxes.

About a year before the shooting, Cooper’s former business partner, Donny Miller, warned Johnny Mack Lawler, Cole’s business partner, that Cooper was upset with Cole and blamed her for his tax problems. Miller told Lawler they should “be careful.”

On Feb. 10, 2016, Cooper went to the office of attorney Scott Hunt and held him at gunpoint. Cooper wanted Hunt to call Miller and ask him to come to Hunt’s office under false pretenses.

Before Miller showed up, Cooper told Hunt he was going after Cole because he blamed her for his tax problems.

When Miller arrived, Cooper shot and killed him.

Cooper went to Cole’s office. After he arrived, Cooper said to Cole, “You have f***** my taxes up for the last time,” according to an eyewitness.

Cole reportedly said, “Don’t do this … I will help you, we will do what we can to fix this mess.” Cooper then shot and killed Cole.

The accounting firm and its workers’ comp insurer denied Cole’s husband request for workers’ comp benefits, claiming this wasn’t a compensable death.

A trial court awarded benefits to Cole’s husband. The company and insurer appealed.

Was it personal?

Under Alabama law, workers’ comp death benefits may be awarded to the surviving spouse of an employee only when the death arose out of and in the course of employment. The law also states benefits shouldn’t be paid when the death is “because of reasons personal to him or her and not directed against him or her as an employee or because of his or her employment.”

The employer and insurer in this case argued there was no evidence presented that Cole had actually caused any of Cooper’s tax problems.

But an appeals court recently found there was no question Cooper shot Cole because she was his former accountant.

The employer and insurer also argued that the assault should be considered a personal attack because of the long amount of time between when Cole handled Cooper’s taxes and the shooting. It turns out Alabama’s Supreme Court ruled in a previous case that an employment-related dispute can’t be transformed into a personal one based only on the passage of time.

The court also said the fact Cooper had apparently spent some time in a mental health institution a year before the shooting wasn’t a valid intervening cause that would prohibit workers’ compensation in this case.

In summary, the appeals court wrote:

“The record very clearly shows that, over time, the tax problems and financial difficulties Cooper encountered eventually motivated him to harm those professionals, including [Cole], who he blamed for those problems. Cooper’s grievance with the employee remained rooted in their working, not personal, relationship.”

The Alabama appeals court ruled Cole’s husband should receive workers’ comp death benefits.

(Lawler and Cole CPAs LLC v. Donald Cole, Alabama Court of Civil Appeals, No. 2170162, 7/13/18)

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