Assault and Battery at Workplace

Physical violence at workplace is more common than we would like to believe. Recently, a client approached me describing the outrageous conduct of his former employer – while being notified of his termination, his employer, during a mild verbal confrontation violently pushed him against a furniture store in his office, which resulted in severe leg and back injury to the terminated employee and disability. That was a classic case of battery at workplace.

Battery requires a showing that (a) the victim was touched with an intent to harm or offend victim; (b) the victim did not consent to be touched; and (c) the victim was harmed or offended by the conduct in question. Even a touching that doesn’t inflict physical pain would be considered “offensive” if it would have offended a reasonable person’s sense of personal dignity. Act of sexual harassment which involve touching may also be actionable as battery, assault and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Under the doctrine of respondeat superior, the employer is vicariously liable for torts committed by one employee upon another if those acts occurred during the “course and scope of employment” (or later ratified by the employer. In those cases, the basic question is whether the employee’s conduct “may fairly be regarded as typical of or broadly incidental to the enterprise undertaken by the employer. The logic behind holding responsible for the acts of violence at workplace is that losses fairly attributable to an enterprise – those which foreseeably result from the conduct of the enterprise – are allocated to the employer as a cost of doing business.

By way of illustration, in one case a supervisor pointed a gun at employee and threatened to kill him because the employee refused to sign a termination notice as requested. This constituted a “willful physical assault by the employer within the meaning of California Labor Code section 3602 because the supervisor’s conduct occurred during the course and scope of employment and also because Employer later ratified the supervisor’s conduct. Herrick v. Quality Hotels, Inns & Resorts, Inc. (1993).

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