A federal district court in Washington DC ruled in Fonseca v. Salminen that the District of Columbia Workers’ Compensation Act (WCA) precludes a lawsuit arising from a workplace assault. While some intentional torts perpetrated by an employer against an employee are not subject to the WCA, the court found that the incident in question did not fall under any exception.
The plaintiff, Luis A. Fonseca, and the defendant, Eric Salminen, were both employees of Asbestos Specialists, Inc. (ASI), also named as a defendant. Salminen acted as Fonseca’s supervisor on an asbestos-removal job. Fonseca alleged that he was working at the job site on July 25, 2011, when Salminen suddenly hit him in the face and left eye. Salminen reportedly told responding law enforcement officers that he remembered speaking with Fonseca, but did not recall hitting him.
Fonseca filed suit against both Salminen and ASI in a District of Columbia court on July 17, 2012, asserting causes of action for assault, battery, and negligent supervision. He also sought punitive damages. Before Fonseca could obtain service on Salminen, ASI removed the case to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on September 4, asserting diversity jurisdiction. It also filed a motion for summary judgment, purportedly on behalf of itself and Salminen, arguing that he WCA precluded Fonseca’s lawsuit.
The WCA, D.C. Code §§ 32-1501 et seq., applies in any case involving “illness, injury, or death” arising out of a worker’s employment, and it is the worker’s sole remedy from the employer. D.C. Code § 32-1504(a), (b). The statute defines an “injury” as any harm resulting from an accident that occurs in the course of a worker’s employment, including injuries caused by third parties “directed against an employee because of his employment.” Id. at § 32-1501(12). The court cited a D.C. Court of Appeals case, Grillo v. National Bank of Washington, 540 A.2d 743 (D.C. 1988), which held that an injury caused by a third party that was related to the injured person’s employment fell under the WCA’s jurisdiction, because it was a work-related injury from the employer’s perspective. Id. at 748. The case provided an exception to WCA preclusion, when an employer deliberately and intentionally injures a specific employee. Id. at 744.
Fonseca argued in his opposition to summary judgment that Salminen’s assault was not related to either his or Salminen’s job duties, and as such it should not be subject to the WCA. The court noted that Fonseca stated in his complaint that Salminen was acting “within the scope of his employment” when the assault occurred. Memorandum opinion at 5. Fonseca never alleged a motive for Salminen’s assault. The court cited another D.C. appellate case, Clark v. D.C. Dep’t of Emp’t Servs., 743 A.2d 722 (D.C. 2000), which applied the WCA in the case of an assault on the employer’s premises. An assailant specifically targeted the plaintiff for an assault, even though he did not seem to know her personally. In the absence of clear evidence of the assailant’s motive, the court ruled that the WCA still applied. The court in the present case followed the Grillo and Clark rulings and granted summary judgment, finding that the WCA precluded the lawsuit.
At Lebowitz & Mzhen, our personal injury attorneys help people in the Washington, DC area who have suffered injuries due to the negligent or unlawful conduct of others to recover their just compensation. For a free and confidential consultation, contact us today online or at (800) 654-1949.
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