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Florida law makes workplace violence lawsuits difficult

The red flags raised in the fatal shooting of a Publix supermarket meat cutter by his co-worker make the tragedy a classic case study in workplace violence.

Of an average 1,000 workplace homicides occurring in the United States every year, one in 10 is committed by an angry customer or co-worker. Usually, there are many warning signs beforehand.

But employers have limited options. Fired workers make threats all the time. Few carry them out. Police don't give verbal threats high priority. Should an employer hire armed security and pass out photos of the fired worker? Should he put his business on high alert every time a disgruntled worker is sent packing?

In the field of workplace violence, Florida stands out in one respect: The Legislature has made it extremely difficult for a victim, or a victim's family, to successfully sue the workplace.

"The business lobby in Florida has gotten legislation passed that makes it almost impossible to protect an employee from workplace violence, or any other kind of workplace negligence," said Tampa lawyer Barry Cohen, whose practice includes employer liability issues.

Some saw warning signs at the Publix in Tarpon Springs before Arunya Rouch, a 41-year-old seafood department worker, was accused of shooting Gregory Janowski, 40, in his car Tuesday, then going inside the store where she was later wounded by police.

Rouch, an immigrant from Thailand, had been teased and taunted by co-workers for months because of her demanding, critical attitude toward workers she trained, according to police and her best friend. Janowski, who worked nearby, was said to be among the teasers. He also had reported her to management for working on her own time, a violation of company rules. She was fired after threatening him directly. She also was overheard by another worker making more threats against him. When she was fired, she left the store in tears.

Virtually all of those actions were typical red flags cited in studies of workplace violence. A handbook on workplace violence published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture cites harassing or bullying behavior, conflicts with co-workers, direct or veiled threats of harm and extreme changes of behavior as clear indicators of danger.

Dozens of studies detail preventive actions employers should take. The USDA handbook states: "Supervisors and managers have the obligation to deal with inappropriate behavior by their employees, to provide employees with information . . . and to put effective security measures in place."

Publix spokeswoman Shannon Patten would not speak specifically about Tuesday's shooting but said that in most situations information about a threat is not shared with employees. "The only folks involved are the ones that are part of the investigation," she said. Janowski's family said Publix hadn't warned him that Rouch had been fired before he came to work.

But in practical terms, employers have few obvious or easy choices, said Chris McGoey, a workplace security expert in Los Angeles.

"The obvious thing to do is call the police," he said. "But police may get thousands of such calls. Only rarely are they real. In my experience, a dispatcher takes a report and that's about it."

Tarpon Springs police said Publix did not alert them to any threat by an employee in this case.

McGoey said employers can hire armed guards, "but that can get scary. And it probably wouldn't make any difference."

In the Publix shooting, McGoey said, the suspect fits the profile of someone "driven by rage who didn't care about the consequences."

Several recent claims of employer negligence in cases involving injuries to workers have been turned away by courts in Florida. None involved violence by fired workers, but the legal issues are similar. One involved a Winter Haven bank teller shot in the face during a robbery; she claimed the bank provided inadequate security. Another case involved a Busch Gardens zookeeper whose arm was torn off by a lion; she claimed a lack of safety procedures.

Both plaintiffs lost. The state's workers' compensation system grants wide immunity to employers. Exceptions are few. Under changes to Florida law passed in 2003, workers can't sue unless they can show "clear and convincing proof" that the employer took deliberate actions that made their injuries "virtually certain."

It's a standard of proof higher than reasonable doubt.

Attorney Cohen said all such cases are extremely difficult.

"The business lobby has made the law so tough that employees aren't protected at all. I doubt that many workers even know that."

Florida law makes workplace violence lawsuits difficult 04/01/10 [Last modified: Thursday, April 1, 2010 10:57pm]
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