The Georgia Court of Appeals recently issued a decision that illustrates how difficult it is for personal injury victims to avoid the Workers’ Compensation Act’s exclusive remedy provision.
In Dawson v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., the court considered whether workers’ compensation was a store manager’s exclusive remedy for injuries she suffered when she was abducted from the store parking lot and then sexually assaulted by a stranger. 2013 WL 5976847, at *1 (Nov. 12, 2013). The store manager sued Wal-Mart, alleging that it was negligent in the manner in which it provided security. Id. at *2.
Under Georgia law, workers’ compensation is an employee’s exclusive remedy for “an injury or accident arising out of and in the course of employment.” Id. An assault against an employee is considered a covered accident “so long as the willful act is not directed against the employee for reasons personal to the employee.” Id.
At issue in Dawson was the “arising out of” element of the exclusive remedy test. As the court noted, “[u]nder this test, if the injury can be seen to have followed as a natural incident of the work, and to have been contemplated by a reasonable person familiar with the whole situation as a result of the exposure occasioned by the nature of the employment, then it arises out of the employment.” Id. at *3.
It obviously seems a stretch to suggest that a “reasonable person” would consider abduction and rape to be a “natural incident” of a store manager’s work. Nevertheless, the court—relying upon a series of prior decisions involving similar facts—affirmed summary judgment for Wal-Mart because it found the manager was not attacked for reasons “personal to the employee.” Rather, the court observed, the manager and her assailant “were unknown to each other prior to the attack, and thus, [the assailant] attacked [the manager] merely because she was at that location. . .” Id. at *4.
The decision, though harsh, appears consistent with prior precedent. It therefore illustrates how difficult it is for personal injury victims to avoid the Workers’ Compensation Act’s exclusive remedy provision—even under circumstances where, as in Dawson, their injuries seem completely unrelated to their employment.