Recent Court of Appeals Decision Clarifies Workers’ Compensation Remedy

In a recent decision, the Tennessee Court of Appeals considered whether a civil action brought by an employee following a sexual assault and robbery on the job should be exclusively remedied under the Tennessee Workers’ Compensation Act.

 

In the case of Jane Doe, et al. v. P.F. Chang’s China Bistro, Inc., et al, an employee of P.F. Chang’s (hereinafter “Plaintiff”) sued the popular restaurant chain for an incident that occurred during her shift on September 12, 2010.  Tenn. Ct. App. 2017 (W2016-01817-COA-R9-CV).  Plaintiff was working as the restaurant’s hospitality manager that night, and locked herself in the restaurant’s office around midnight to perform closing procedures. After answering a knock at the office door, Plaintiff was held at gunpoint by a masked intruder, ordered to give the code to the office safe, tied to a chair and raped. A subsequent investigation concluded that the perpetrator was Jorge Ricardo Rojas-Morin, a cook also on duty at the restaurant that night.

 

In addition to her claims against Mr. Rojas-Morin, Plaintiff sued P.F. Chang’s for causes of action including gross negligence, negligent hiring, and vicarious liability. P.F. Chang’s moved to dismiss Plaintiff’s complaint based on the exclusive remedy provision of the Tennessee Workers’ Compensation Act (hereinafter the “Act”), which states that “the rights and remedies granted to an employee [under the Act] on account of personal injury or death by accident . . . shall exclude all other rights and remedies of the employee” T.C.A. § 50-6-108(a). Id. at *2.  The trial court denied P.F. Chang’s motion, holding that “beating, rape, humiliation, and violation of an individuals’ dignity and self-esteem are not risks inherit to the Plaintiff’s work environment…” Id.

 

P.F. Chang’s subsequently appealed the decision, asserting that because Plaintiff’s claims arose from her employment, she could recover only under the Act and not against the restaurant itself for Mr. Rojas-Morin’s tortious actions. Id. at *5.  The issue on appeal turned on whether P.F. Chang’s meet its burden of proof that Plaintiff’s claims both “arose out of” and were “in the course of [her] employment” (emphasis added), Id.  at *4, See Coleman v. St. Thomas Hosp., 34 S.W.3d 199, 209 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2010).  The court quoted the Coleman decision, stating that an injury can be connected to employment when there is a “causal connection between the conditions under which the work [was] required to be performed and the resulting injury.” Id. at * 5.

 

The Tennessee Court of Appeals found there was no evidence the assault on Plaintiff was a natural incident of her employment or that it causally connected to her work at P.F. Chang’s. Therefore, the exclusive remedy provision of the Tennessee Workers’ Compensation Act was not applicable, and the judgment of the trial court was affirmed.