April 06, 2007

Appellate Court Reverses Trial Court’s Dismissal of Complaint Based on Shooting of One Employee by Another

April 06, 2007

Martinez v. Gutmann Leather No. 1-06-2346

In the Maria Martinez case, the appellate court had occasion to consider a civil action by the estate of a deceased employee.  Miguel Pena, an employee of Gutmann Leather, was allegedly killed by a fellow employee, Ramon Hernandez on the employer’s premises when Hernandez was still “on the clock.”  In her complaint, the estate administrator alleged that Pena and Hernandez had repeated quarrels for personal reasons unrelated to work.  Apparently, the employer denied liability because a dispute was not work related.  There is no evidence that an application was ever filed.

The employer contended that the tort case was barred under Section 5(a) of the Compensation Act which provides, in relevant part:

No common law or statutory right to recover damages from the employer, his insurer, his broker *** or the agents or employees of any of them for injury or death sustained by any employee while engaged in the line of his duty as such employee, other than the compensation herein provided, is available***.

The court reviewed a number of workers’ compensation cases where the claimant sought benefits under the Act from injuries resulting from a physical altercation.  In the Castaneda case, a co-worker and her sister, with whom the claimant had previously quarreled, joined together and assaulted the claimant as a result of a dispute from the previous day.  It was held that the injuries resulted from a purely personal dispute.  In the Huddleston case, a dispute about a parking space led to an assault of the claimant in the place of employment but the court stated that the employment did not increase the risk or cause the altercation.   The trial court dismissed the complaint and the appellate court reversed stating:

Turning to the case at hand, we find the trial court erred in concluding there was no set of facts which would allow plaintiff to recover.  Plaintiff attested that she lived with Pena prior to his death and had personal knowledge of the quarrel between him and Hernandez.  She attested that the relationship had been deteriorating for some time and had nothing to do with Pena’s employment at Gutmann Leather.  She further attested that over a period of at least a year prior to the incident, Hernandez had come to her home looking for Pena and threatened to cause him harm.  We note that at the hearing on defendant’s motion to dismiss, plaintiff represented that Hernandez could not be deposed by the parties because his criminal case was still pending.

Based upon the guidance from our supreme court in the above cases, and viewing the pleadings in the light most favorable to plaintiff, we find it cannot be said, as a matter of law, that the dispute which ended in Pena’s death arose out of and in the course of his employment at Gutmann Leather.  As our supreme court has explained: “[e]ven though a fight occurs on the employee’s premises, resulting injuries are not compensable if the underlying dispute is not connected with the work.”  Accordingly, we reverse the circuit court’s order dismissing plaintiff’s first amended complaint and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

Editor’s Note:

The finding is consistent with the language in the 2005 opinion by the appellate court in MacDon6ald v. Hinton, which has a somewhat similar factual situation.  In that decision, the court stated:

Ordinarily, a party owes no duty of care to protect another from the harmful or criminal acts of third persons (citing cases).  However, the law recognizes at least four exceptions to this rule (1) when the parties are in a special relationship and harm is foreseeable; (2) when an employee is in imminent danger and this is known to the employer; (3) when a principal fails to warn his agent of an unreasonable risk of harm involved in the agency; and (4) when any party voluntarily or contractually assumes a duty to protect another from the harmful acts of a third party.

Martinez v. Gutmann Leather No. 1-06-2346, decided March 27, 2007

Frank J. Wiedner, Editor Wiedner & McAuliffe, Ltd One North Franklin, #1900 Chicago, IL 60606 (312) 855-1105