Tenn. SC deny workers comp in unsolved shooting

Jessica M. Karmasek Oct. 15, 2010, 11:38am

NASHVILLE (Legal Newsline) - The Tennessee Supreme Court last week upheld the decision of both a trial court and workers' compensation panel denying a widow's claim for benefits following the fatal shooting of her husband at work.

The Court, in its opinion filed Oct. 6, declined "to engraft a non-statutory presumption" favoring compensability in a case involving a what they classified as a neutral assault on an employer's premises.

The employee, Jose Sanchez, began working as an apprentice mill worker for Xelica LLC in 2001.

Xelica manufactured windows and doors, and its shop was located in one of Nashville's light industrial areas near Interstate 65 and Herschel Greer Stadium.

According to Court documents, Sanchez was generally the first employee to arrive at the shop each morning, and the owner of the business had given him permission to open the building and begin working.

On the morning of July 13, 2007, Sanchez arrived at the shop at 4:42 a.m. George C. Moolman, the owner of the business, arrived about 6 a.m.

While he saw Sanchez's automobile in the parking lot, Moolman did not see Sanchez at his workstation when he entered the shop.

Moolman began to look for Sanchez when he noticed that his music was not playing and that the machines were not running.

He discovered Sanchez lying near the rear shop door with two gunshot wounds in his chest and two in his head. He also noticed a pipe laying across Sanchez's body. Moolman immediately called the police.

On Nov. 27, 2007, following the man's death -- which remains unsolved -- Sanchez's surviving spouse, Ana R. Padilla, filed a lawsuit in a Davidson County trial court seeking death benefits under Tennessee's Workers' Compensation Law.

Following a bench trial, the trial court denied the widow's claim for workers' compensation benefits. The court concluded that the employee's death was the result of a neutral assault and that the "street risk" doctrine was inapplicable because the employer's premises were not open to the public.

On appeal, the Special Workers' Compensation Appeals Panel declined to presume that neutral assaults on an employer's premises were compensable and affirmed the trial court's judgment.

The state's high court, in turn, granted Padilla's petition for full court review.

At issue is the workers' compensation liability of an employer for the man's unsolved shooting.

Justice William C. Koch, Jr., who authored the Court's majority opinion, said to be compensable under Tennessee's Workers' Compensation Law, an injury must both arise out of the work and occur in the course of employment.

The requirement that the injury "arise out of" the work refers to the cause or origin of the injury; while the requirement that the injury occur "in the course of" the work involves the time, place, and circumstances of the injury.

Padilla, the Court wrote, insists that the only reasonable conclusion to be drawn from the evidence is that her husband was killed during a "burglary gone wrong" and, therefore, that the fatal assault was inherently connected with his work.

However, the Court pointed out that there is no evidence of an effort to break into the business. There also is no evidence that anything was taken from the business or from Sanchez.

Koch wrote, "When viewed in its entirety, the evidence could also permit a reasonable person to conclude that Mr. Sanchez was killed during an entirely random assault.

"Whatever the true motive of the assailant may have been, the evidence does not preponderate against the trial court's finding that this was a neutral force assault."

The Court also shoots down Padilla's application of the "street risk" doctrine. The facts in the case, again, do not support it, the Court said.

"The trial court noted that, unlike its neighboring business, 'Xelica was not frequented by the public nor did it advertise or attract the public.' The court also noted that Xelica was secured with locks and a burglar alarm," Koch wrote for the Court.

"The court concluded that 'the conditions of Mr. Sanchez's employment at Xelica did not indiscriminately expose him to dangers of the public, including the danger of crime in the neighborhood.'"

Padilla, in her suit, also questions whether the state's workers' compensation law requires or permits a presumption that employees injured in a neutral force assault are entitled to compensation unless the employer can prove that the injury arose from the employee's personal activities.

The widow asserts that such a presumption is not inconsistent with the law or with the Court's interpretations of the law.

The Court disagreed, "It would enable employees who are injured at work by a neutral risk to recover simply because they were injured at work. It would also dispense with the requirement that
the injured employee or beneficiary prove that the injury arose out of the work."

In its decision, the Court remanded the case to the trial court.

Justice Gary R. Wade dissented, filing his own 7-page opinion.

He wrote, "For years, this Court has interpreted this statutory mandate to favor the employee under circumstances where there is 'reasonable doubt' surrounding the compensability of a work-related claim. In my view, the claimant, in this instance, is entitled to the benefit of the doubt."

Wade pointed to much of the circumstantial evidence presented at trial.

"Initially, I fear that the majority, by classifying this case as an assault resulting from a 'neutral force' (or a random assault), has failed to give adequate consideration to the circumstantial evidence, largely unrefuted, presented in support of the claim for benefits," he wrote.

He also pointed out that the Court has consistently ruled that "any reasonable doubt as to whether an injury arose out of the employment is to be resolved in favor of the employee."

"Even when the assault has been classified as 'neutral,' this Court has traditionally applied this principle and granted recovery to the employee," Wade wrote.

The justice -- unlike the majority, he notes -- views the "street risk" doctrine as an augmentation of the basic claim or an alternative basis for recovery.

"As an initial matter, the street risk doctrine may be applied to injuries which occur at the place of employment as well as those on the 'streets,'" he wrote. "Further, the fact that Xelica did not engage in retail sales is not a valid reason to refuse application of the street risk doctrine to these circumstances."

Wade concludes in his opinion, "When an employee, who is authorized to open business operations in a location particularly vulnerable to criminal activity, is shot and killed by an assailant who had gained entry into the premises by means unknown, surely his family is entitled to benefits. Under circumstances such as these, an employee should expect workers' compensation coverage."

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by e-mail at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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