Violence in the Workplace: What is the Business’ Liability?

More than 11,600 people were killed between 1992 and 2006 in incidents of workplace violence, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. About 1.7 million Americans are victims of violent crimes while working.

When violence comes to a business’ doorstep, who is held liable?

When a Business May be Held Liable for Violence

Depending on the circumstances of the incident, a business may be held liable for violence in the workplace.

OSHA Violations

According to the General Duty Clause of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, businesses “shall furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees.”

If the victim or the victim’s family can prove that the business knew or should have known violence could occur, the company may be held liable.

The employer may also be penalized if the U.S. Secretary of Labor can prove:

  • A hazard existed
  • The employer knew of the hazard
  • The hazard was the likely cause of death or serious injury, and
  • There was a feasible method of abatement.

Failure to Create a Safe Environment

Employers also have a duty to create a safe environment and may be held liable if non-employees enter the workplace and commit acts of violence.

If a customer is injured during the act of violence, the company may also be held liable for injuries and damages under premises liability. Commercial establishments generally have a duty to keep customers safe from criminal activity on their property.

Failure to Exercise Ordinary Care

Employers also have a responsibility to exercise ordinary care. If violence occurs in the workplace, the company may be held liable if they knew or should have known of the potential danger.

The company may find itself facing a lawsuit based on negligence if an employee goes on to commit violence and the company was aware of this potential outcome.

Cases of Sexual Assault

If an employee is the victim of sexual assault, the business may also be held liable. If the company has 15 or more employees, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) may issue penalties. Employees of smaller businesses do not fall under the EEOC’s protection, but they may file a personal injury lawsuit and may collect workers’ compensation for physical or emotional injuries.

Employers should adopt a zero-tolerance policy that makes it clear that any type of violence, harassment or verbal abuse is unacceptable and will have disciplinary actions (or termination). The zero-tolerance policy should be conveyed during employee training and included in the employee handbook.

Before hiring, employers should consider conducting a background check which includes a report on any history of violence or threats. Background checks are standard protocol for most employers, but some small businesses are still failing to do this.

Additionally, employers should implement a simple method for reporting potentially dangerous people or situations. Managers and supervisors should be properly trained on how to respond to these reports. Threats should always be taken seriously and reported through the appropriate channels.

Adam Richards

About Adam Richards

Adam Richards is a semi-retired business professional originally from Bangor, Maine. He spent the majority of his career in sales and marketing where he rose to the marketing lead of a Fortune 1000 company. He then moved on to helping people as a career counselor that specifically helped bring families to self-sufficiency through finding them rewarding careers. He has now returned to Bangor for his retirement and spends his free time writing. This blog will be about everything he learned throughout his career. He'll write on career, workplace, education and technology issues as well as on trends, changes, and advice for the Maine job market and its employers.