Injuries from assaults at work don’t automatically qualify for workers’ comp benefits. In this case, the owner of a bar said the injuries a waitress received in a fight shouldn’t qualify.
Melissa Crutcher worked as a waitress and cook at the New Direction Bar and Grill in Kentucky. She applied for workers’ comp benefits, alleging she suffered work-related injuries to her head, neck, hair, shoulders, arms, back and knees as a result of an assault.
Crutcher said she was grabbed from behind and knocked to the ground by a customer, Alicia King. The waitress finished her shift and then sought medical attention. She continued to work at the bar for several weeks afterward.
New Directions was uninsured, so the Kentucky Uninsured Employers Fund became involved. The UEF petitioned for the issue of whether Crutcher’s injury was work-related to be decided by an administrative law judge (ALJ).
Crutcher testified she was the innocent victim of an unprovoked attack. She said she didn’t know King before the incident, nor did she know another woman, Stacey Hope, whom King was fighting with. Crutcher said King grabbed her by the hair, threw her to the ground and punched her.
However, others told a slightly different story. King said she was arguing with the other woman when Crutcher intervened and called King a vulgar name. Another patron said Crutcher grabbed King’s arm first. The bar’s owner, Cathy Miller, said Crutcher was acquainted with Hope, saying they hung out at the bar on Crutcher’s nights off.
The ALJ said the others’ testimony was more credible than Crutcher’s, so she was denied workers’ comp. Crutcher appealed to a state court.
Crutcher argued that, as an uninsured employer, Miller had a motive to lie about the situation. The waitress also asserted she was entitled to workers’ comp benefits under the positional risk theory: Her employment at a “dive bar” exposed her to the risk of being involved in a fight with an intoxicated patron. In Crutcher’s view, her work assignment put her in a dangerous position.
That argument didn’t convince the court to reverse the ALJ’s decision. “In light of the conflicting testimony, it was reasonable for the ALJ to infer that Crutcher was acquainted with Stacey Hope and intervened in the dispute on Hope’s behalf.”
The court also quoted a previous decision: “Where an employee is assaulted and injury is inflicted upon him through personal animosity arising over some cause wholly disconnected with the employer’s business, no recovery can be had even though he is assaulted when in the discharge of his duties.”
(Crutcher v. New Direction, Court of Appeals of KY, No. 2013-CA-000154-WC, 8/2/13)
Kentucky isn’t the only state that has taken this view on assaults and workers’ comp.
In New York, a worker was involved in a fist fight with another passenger on a shuttle bus that employees used to ride from a satellite parking lot to their place of employment. One worker complained the other wasn’t exiting the bus fast enough, and a verbal spat grew into a physical fight.
The worker suffered injuries to her chest, neck and shoulder and sought workers’ comp benefits for her physical injuries and for post-traumatic stress disorder.
Her employer denied the claim. The Workers’ Compensation Board ruled the injuries didn’t arise out of the worker’s employment.
A New York appeals court agreed with the board, noting previous case law that established “injuries stemming from an assault which arose in the course of employment are presumed to have arisen out of the employment unless substantial evidence is presented that the assault was motivated by purely personal animosity.”
The court said the fight in this case was personal.
In a paper published online about this subject, former prosecutor Pamela Treadwell-Rubin notes that in Arizona, injuries from assaults that are personal in nature aren’t covered by workers’ comp. This means domestic violence that happens in the workplace wouldn’t be covered.
But, as is often the case when it comes to workers’ comp law, for every rule there is an exception. Treadwell-Rubin notes that Arizona follows the “imported quarrel” rule, which says that if a personal dispute takes place in the workplace, it can be compensable if the work is found to have exacerbated the quarrel.
Under these circumstances, what types of assault injuries would be covered under workers’ comp? Here are two examples:
- a retail employee beaten in a robbery, and
- a healthcare worker assaulted by an out-of-control patient.
Neither of those situations would be considered personal in nature, and they arose out of and in the course of employment.