8-20-12; Shots fired! Illinois Appellate Court invokes the Workers’ Compensation Act’s exclusive remedy provision to bar Widow’s Common Law Negligence claim against Employer for workplace shooting

In Rodriguez v. Frankie’s Beef/Pasta and Catering, Decedent had a disagreement and then an altercation with a co-worker over circumstances of the work. The next day, the other worker shot and killed Decedent. The widow of Decedent filed a negligence claim against his employer for negligent hiring and retaining the erstwhile nonviolent but later homicidal coworker. For reasons not clear in the record, it appears the widow or her counsel didn’t file a WC death claim for the passing of Decedent.

The Circuit Court of Cook County granted the employer’s motion for summary judgment reasoning the exclusive remedy provision of the Workers’ Compensation Act, Section 5(a) applied to bar Plaintiff’s negligence claim. Please note this motion was granted despite the fact no workers’ compensation benefits were paid.

Section 5(a) provides

No common law or statutory right to recover damages from the employer…for injury or death sustained by any employee while engaged in the line of his duty as such employee, other than the compensation herein provided, is available to any employee who is covered by the provisions of this Act,…or otherwise entitled to recover damages for such injury.

According to our Supreme Court, the IL WC act prohibits employees from bringing a common law cause of action for negligence resulting in injury against an employer unless the employee can show the injury

(1) Was not accidental;

(2) Did not arise from employment;

(3) Was not received in the course of employment; or

(4) Was not compensable under the Act.

It was undisputed Decedent was injured in the course of employment—he was on the job and working when shot. And, as several witnesses testified the altercation leading to the shooting involved the coworker’s demotion, the Circuit and Appellate Courts deemed the otherwise unforeseen criminal attack to arise from employment. Last, Decedent’s injuries were compensable under the IL WC Act as his verbal taunting of the coworker did not make him the initial aggressor.   

Regarding whether the shooting was “accidental,” the Court noted the employer did not direct or expressly authorize the shooting and was unaware of tensions prior to altercation. Thus, according to the IL Appellate Court, Second Division, the employee’s death was "accidental" and Decedent's sole remedy against the employer was under the IL WC Act. Please note the failure of Plaintiff’s counsel to proceed under the IL WC Act to get appropriate death benefits under Section 7 of the IL WC Act did not protect the widow from the motion to dismiss the common law action. Unlike the odd anti-business ruling in Country Insurance and Financial Services v. Roberts, the IL Appellate Court did not rule the IWCC has sole and primary jurisdiction to determine compensability.

Please note the WC death claim would have had a value to the widow of approximately $600,000. When we teach law students, we are careful to point out a diligent Plaintiff/Petitioner’s attorney investigates and proceeds on all potential avenues of relief to avoid malpractice concerns and criticism. This ruling is on the web at: http://www.state.il.us/court/opinions/AppellateCourt/2012/1stDistrict/1113155.pdf

This article was researched and written by Sean C. Brogan, J.D. Please feel free to contact Sean about it at sbrogan@keefe-law.com.