Can I Sue My Employer After a Robbery?
You probably can't bring a civil lawsuit, but you can file a workers' compensation claim and recover workers' compensation benefits. Generally, if you accept workers' comp benefits, you can't then sue your employer. But if your workers' compensation claim gets denied, your employer lacks workers' compensation insurance, or your employer was grossly negligent, you may sue your employer in court.
A workers' compensation lawyer could tell you your options and help you decide how to proceed. And if you do need to go to court, you should hire a good personal injury attorney. Many lawyers practice in both areas. An employment lawyer can give some insight as well.
Surviving a Workplace Robbery
Being the victim of a crime, particularly an armed robbery, is traumatic. Suppose you are an employee at a gas station. It's late at night, and you're alone in the store. Suddenly, someone comes in, holds you at gunpoint, and demands all the money in the cash register. You comply, and they leave.
But it's not over for you. That's just the beginning. After you've reported the crime, given your statement and the law enforcement officer leaves, you sit down. You're shaking. You feel nauseated. You go home, but you can't sleep. It's that way for what feels like weeks. When you do sleep, you have nightmares.
You feel like you're going through the motions when you're at work. But then, a customer comes in. Then you break out in a sweat as you relive the robbery. You end up taking a two-week leave.
You can't live this way and decide to see a psychiatrist. They diagnose you with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and prescribe medication. They refer you to a psychologist, who sets up weekly appointments. After a few months, you do feel better. But the nightmares don't go away.
It leaves you with a lot of medical bills, lost wages, and emotional distress. You can't afford to bear this loss. In theory, you could file a lawsuit against the robber for compensation, but in practice, this is nearly always a dead-end. You may not be able to find the robber, let alone sue. Even if the robber gets caught and convicted, suing may not amount to anything since it's unlikely the robber has any money. Often, that means the only option for help in your recovery is through your employer.
What Is Robbery?
Let's start with a definition. What is robbery?
In general, it's taking someone else's property by force or threat of force. It's the force that distinguishes the crime from theft or shoplifting.
There are slight differences in the elements of the crime, depending on which state you're in. For example, in some states, there must be an imminent use or threat of force. In some states, you don't have to take the property to get charged with robbery successfully.
Workplace robbery is common. In the United States, about 50,000 businesses get robbed each year. One in every 5,000 workers in the U.S. over 16 is a victim of a workplace robbery. There are about 160 million people in the workforce, so it's fair to say that thousands of people every year will be the victim of a robbery while on the job.
Businesses that get robbed the most include:
- Commercial houses (malls, retail stores, restaurants)
- Gas stations
- Convenience stores
Some of the risks associated with these businesses include:
- Exchanging cash with the public
- The serving of alcohol
- Being open late at night
- Being in a high-crime area
- Employees working alone
After researching and consulting a lawyer, your first step toward compensation is to file a workers' compensation claim.
What Is Workers' Compensation?
Workers' compensation is a system where injured employees can get benefits without proving that someone was at fault. Most employers must carry workers' compensation insurance by law. Employees can't sue their employer for workplace injuries in exchange for benefits.
Workers' compensation benefits can include the following:
- Medical bills and other health care expenses
- Out-of-pocket expenses
- At least some portion of your lost wages (in many states, it's two-thirds)
- Compensation for any permanent injuries
- Costs for retraining
- Death benefits if you get killed on the job
Note that while workers' compensation benefits generally do not include pain and suffering, some courts have allowed compensation for PTSD. Courts are beginning to treat PTSD like any other work injury.
Procedures for Getting Workers' Compensation
We describe the claims process here. Although workers' compensation laws vary from state to state, some common steps exist.
1. Get medical attention. Seek any necessary medical treatment. Take care of yourself before you worry about the money. You can't get workers' compensation before a medical professional diagnoses you.
2. Notice of claim. Notify your employer and its insurance company in writing of your claim. Your employer will likely give you a claim form that requires you to disclose details about the robbery and your injuries. Ensure you keep all your bills and can turn those over to the workers' compensation insurance company. You have a limited time (in some states, we're talking days) to give them notice, so you need to do this as soon as possible.
3. Submit claim to employer's insurance company. You or your employer will submit your claim to the workers' comp carrier. The carrier will either approve or deny your claim and submit its determination to the appropriate state agency.
What To Do if They Deny Your Claim
If they approve your claim, great. If they deny it, you have a few options.
1. You can contact the insurance adjuster. You can work out a solution with it directly.
2. Try to work it out through alternative dispute resolution (ADR). Many states have workers' compensation ADR specialists who can help you. Contact your local department of labor or the specific workers' compensation agency directly. You can get this information online.
3. Appeal the denial. You can request a hearing with the appropriate agency by filing the proper forms. Many choose to have a workers' compensation attorney help them prepare and file the paperwork and represent them in the agency proceedings.
Remember that state law sets deadlines. You can find your state's applicable statute of limitations here. A good attorney can help make sure you keep your deadline.
Suing Your Employer
As we said, you can't sue your employer if you get workers' compensation benefits. That's the exchange for not proving that someone was at fault.
But perhaps your employer didn't carry workers' compensation insurance. In that case, you can file a lawsuit against your employer, even if you got robbed in the parking lot, if you can show that your employer was negligent.
The elements of a negligence claim are pretty straightforward:
- Duty: Your employer owed you a duty to act as a reasonably prudent person in the same or similar circumstances (that is, a safe workplace reasonably free from danger)
- Breach of Duty: Your employer failed to act accordingly
- Causation: The breach of duty caused reasonably foreseeable injuries
- Damages: You suffered losses that you can get legally compensated for (note that you can recover damages for pain and suffering in a negligence case)
Whether you can show that your employer breached its duty of care to you will depend on the circumstances. Those would include:
- The location of the business (e.g., if you are in a high-crime area, your employer would need to take greater precautions)
- Any security precautions taken (e.g., security cameras, lights in the parking lot, etc.)
- Any notice of prior robberies in the area
Negligence Per Se
Sometimes, proving negligence is hard. But in some cases, the law helps you. There is a doctrine called "negligence per se." According to this doctrine, some acts are inherently negligent because they violate a statute or a regulation. The effect is to shift the burden to the employer to prove that it acted with reasonable care instead of you having to prove it didn't.
And there is a regulation you can rely on. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has the General Duty Clause regulation. This clause requires employers to provide a place of employment "free from hazards that are likely to cause death or serious physical harm."
States have different views on whether an employer's violation of this clause is negligence per se enough to force the employer to prove they weren't negligent. Some states consider it evidence of negligence, but not enough to shift the burden of proof to your employer, and in at least one state (Mississippi), a violation is not admissible to prove negligence. It can get complicated, but as you can see, where you are makes a difference.
In certain states, you can sue your employer despite workers' compensation if you show it was grossly negligent. To show gross negligence, you must show that your employer failed to exercise slight care to protect against an unreasonably high risk of harm.
Take our situation as an example. Suppose you weren't the first robbery at the gas station that month — or even that week. And virtually every store on the block had gotten robbed several times before. Your employer had no security cameras at the place. The lights in the parking lot had burned out, and your boss was too lazy to replace them. This may amount to gross negligence that might allow for a lawsuit.
Consider Consulting With an Attorney If You Are the Victim of a Workplace Robbery
If you are the victim of a workplace robbery and suffer losses or injuries, you may get at least some compensation through or from your employer. Start with workers' compensation. You can handle the initial process on your own.
If you have questions or if the company denies your claim, consider speaking with a good workers' compensation attorney. They can help you file the forms, prepare your case, and possibly get you benefits.
If your employer didn't have insurance or you believe your employer was grossly negligent, you can file a civil lawsuit. An experienced personal injury attorney can give you legal advice and represent you in court. Again, many lawyers work on both types of cases, so you can get by with one law firm. And if aspects of your case relate particularly to employment law, an employment lawyer can help. Many lawyers offer a free consultation.