Gun violence in the workplace

Hundreds of people die in workplace shootings each year. Why are lawsuits so rare?

Jana Kasperkevic Jun 26, 2019
Rose Conlon/Marketplace
Gun violence in the workplace

Hundreds of people die in workplace shootings each year. Why are lawsuits so rare?

Jana Kasperkevic Jun 26, 2019
Rose Conlon/Marketplace

One person is shot at work every day. Marketplace examines what this means for employers and employees, from training and preparation, to how to manage in the aftermath of a workplace shooting. Check out the rest of our series here.

Aaron Alexis wasn’t a stranger. He wasn’t an intruder. By all appearances, he was just another employee reporting for work at the Washington Navy Yard. He parked his car and used his pass to scan in, stopping off in the bathroom before heading to his desk.

Except Alexis wasn’t just another person coming to work. In his bag was a gun and ammunition. When he exited the bathroom, he began shooting indiscriminately. That day, September 16, 2013, he killed 12 people and injured four others.

In 2013, 322 people were intentionally shot dead at work. The number has been in the 300s for the past few years. And while workplace shootings have remained constant, lawsuits suing employers and companies, where they happen, have been rare and far between.

Shootings tend to be hard to predict and often it’s difficult to prove that something could’ve been done to prevent them, which is why lawyers can be reluctant to take up these cases. Once in a while, though, they take a chance.

When it comes to workplace shooting cases, Peter Grenier, principal at the Grenier Law Group, suggests he has turned down more than he has taken. These kind of cases are his specialty. He has settled cases related to shootings at Columbine, Virginia Tech and, most recently, the Washington Navy Yard.

At Leutze Park on June 23, 2014, U.S. Navy sailors and officers bow their heads in prayer during a ceremony to honor victims of the Washington Navy Yard shooting. It was the second-deadliest mass murder on a U.S. military base, behind only the Fort Hood shooting in November 2009. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

One of the reasons that Grenier agreed to take on the Navy Yard shooting case was because he believed Alexis’s behavior prior to the shooting raised a lot of red flags. He had a history of violent behavior.

There was the time he allegedly shot out rear tires of a construction worker’s car, the time he got thrown out of a nightclub for getting into an altercation, and the time his gun went off at home, going all the way through the ceiling and entering the apartment above. Victims suing his employer argued that all of this should have been flagged in background check, and should have been enough to not get him hired.

About a month before the shooting, Alexis suffered from paranoia and, while on an assignment, claimed he was being followed and that people were using microwave signals to control his movements. At the time, he was employed by company called The Experts Inc. and was, essentially, a government contractor. Experts chose not to report his recent behavior to the Department of Defense so as to protect his privacy.

“We alleged that [The Experts] negligently retained and negligently supervised him, and the case did settle after we did a lot of discovery,” said Grenier. The confidential settlement was negotiated last fall, five years after the lawsuit.

Cases like this tend to be rare, as employees typically cannot sue their employer for on-the-job injury or death if the employer has workers’ compensation coverage. Lawsuits often get dismissed completely or at least in part, as a result.

J. Kevin Morrison, a lawyer with Altair Law, is working on one such lawsuit. The California-based lawyer is representing more than three dozen victims of the June 2017 UPS shooting in San Francisco. His clients include families of two workers who were killed, two workers who were shot and survived, and other employees suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after witnessing the shooting. Their lawsuit alleges that the security company hired by UPS failed to do its jobs when it allowed the shooter, Jimmy Lam, to enter the facility despite his setting off the metal detectors.

“We filed a lawsuit against the private security company who was responsible for monitoring the metal detectors as well as the employer, UPS,” Morrison explained. “And our lawsuit against the UPS was thrown out by the judge because in California, like most other states, if there is an on-the-job injury — in other words if you’re at work and you suffer an on-the-job injury or death — you typically cannot sue your employer if your employer has workers’ compensation.”

This is not likely to change, according to Morrison. “I don’t see legislatures anywhere making it easier for the employer to be civilly liable for shootings,” he said. Although the case against UPS was dismissed, the one against the security company is ongoing.

Finding someone to blame and holding them responsible for the shooting is one of the main reasons behind these lawsuits. Often, families of the victims are unable to get answers from the police and the companies where the shooting took place. So, they turn to lawyers instead.

When he takes on a case, Grenier’s team often hires investigators, files Freedom of Information Act requests and tries to get as much information for his clients as possible.

“They want answers. They want to understand so that that can help them heal,” said Grenier. But lawsuits can take years; years full of painful reminders. It’s something that Grenier warns his clients about before they sign on.

“You are going into a lengthy process where you are perpetuating your relationship with the bad people, the people you were blaming for the death of your son or daughter,” he said.

“You’ve got to make sure you’ve got that emotional stamina. At some point, you will be at a trial looking across the courtroom at the people that you are holding responsible for killing your loved one.”

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