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Mother of Murdered Warehouse Worker May Pursue Claims Against Employer

Under Georgia law, the estate and surviving family members of a deceased individual may file a wrongful death lawsuit against any party whose negligence contributed to the death. Wrongful death cases are rarely simple matters. They often raise complex legal questions that can delay a final adjudication.

Sturgess v. OA Logistics Services, Inc.

For example, the Georgia Court of Appeals recently addressed the question of whether a mother could sue her deceased son’s employer for wrongful death. The son drove a forklift at a warehouse owned by one of the defendants. The warehouse owner contracted with another defendant, a staffing company, to hire temporary workers for the facility.

On the day in question, the victim entered the warehouse office because he needed fuel for his forklift. At that time, he observed another male employee sexually assaulting a female employee. When she resisted his advances, the male employee pulled out a gun, shot the victim in the head, and proceeded to continue with his sexual assault.

The victim’s mother filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the killer, the warehouse owner, the staffing company, and an unidentified party who “allegedly supplied” the gun. With respect to the warehouse and the staffing company, the mother accused them of negligence in hiring the killer, a convicted felon, to work at the warehouse. According to evidence presented to the trial court, the staffing company hired the killer, and the warehouse allowed him to begin work before a criminal background check could be completed.

The defendants moved for summary judgment. They argued that a wrongful death lawsuit was not appropriate in this case, because the victim died at work, so therefore the “exclusive remedy” available was a Workers’ Compensation claim. The trial court agreed and granted summary judgment on that ground.

But the Court of Appeals reversed. Chief Judge Sara L. Doyle, writing for the court, said workers’ compensation only applies if a person’s death “arose out of” his employment. This means there has to be “some causal connection between the conditions under which the employee worked and the injury which he received.” Judge Doyle said the evidence in this case did not point to such a connection. The victim and his killer had no significant interaction or work-related dispute prior to the murder.

The defendants attempted to argue Workers’ Compensation still applied because the victim’s “brought him within range of the danger by requiring his presence in the locale when the peril struck.” But as Judge Doyle explained, that rule applies to “acts of God” like a tornado or cases where a person is normally required to work in a high crime or high risk area. In contrast, the risk of a “random attack” like the one that killed the victim here “was no more heightened” at the warehouse “than at any other place.”

The Court of Appeals, it should be noted, did not address the merits of the underlying wrongful death lawsuit. The court merely held the victim’s mother could pursue such a claim, and it was wrong for the trial court to hold otherwise.