As COVID-19 started its path of destruction across the world in early 2020, companies were thrust into mayhem as quarantine efforts forced office and manufacturing employees to stay home indefinitely. Weeks and months passed as economies tried to limp along; switching people from in-office to remote work seemed akin to climbing Mount Everest.
Home office meetings over Zoom became commonplace and made efforts to engage with others during times of isolation top priority.
In addition, companies looked for ways to add perks to employment by boosting benefit packages to include stipends for home office supplies or upskilling efforts. And what started as a necessary experiment became a fluid working environment.
But what happens when remote workers face life-threatening situations? Does their employer have to ensure their safety during work-related occasions? One case discusses what an employer is liable to provide and what they aren't.
Recent Court Case
In a recent court case out of California, Colonial, a moving and storage company, was sued by two women who were shot while visiting a co-worker for dinner and work-related activities.
According to The San Diego Union-Tribune, the co-worker, Carol Holaday, who at the time was a supervisor for Colonial, had invited Crystal Dominguez to her home. Crystal worked for Colonial out of the San Francisco office. Rachel Schindler and her baby joined her.
Carol didn't disclose to her guests that her son, Kyle, who suffered from PTSD from his time in the military, was home and had a history of misusing firearms.
The three women and Holaday's husband, Jim Wilcoxson, enjoyed a nice dinner and did some networking and other general work. Then, Kyle emerged from wherever he'd been during their work session and opened fire on the group. Jim Wilcoxson died, and the two women were also shot.
After the shooting, both Schindler and Dominguez filed lawsuits against Carol Holaday and Colonial. But Colonial quickly built a defense on the premise that they couldn't have foreseen Kyle's behavior.
When litigation eventually finished, the California Court of Appeal in Colonial Van & Storage, Inc. v. Superior Court ruled that an employer must take measures to provide a safe workplace environment free of violence. However, the duty does not "include ensuring that an off-site meeting place for co-workers and business associates like an employee's private residence is safe from third-party criminal harm…."
Employees Are Responsible
While there is no precedent for remote workplace safety, especially when hosting co-workers or management in your own home, there is a general expectation of entering a safe environment. In the above case, Kyle was arrested and charged with first-degree murder, four counts of attempted murder, and one count of animal cruelty, according to arrest records.
Schindler's and Dominguez's cases were both consolidated along with Colonial's case.
As for the murder charges, Kyle Holaday was found to be legally insane and is likely to spend the rest of his life in a mental hospital for the criminally insane. "The murder victim's family members didn't want to be interviewed but said they want the defendant to serve prison time - even considering the PTSD claims," Sontaya Rose of ABC Action News reported.
Colonial Van & Storage, Inc. was found not to be liable for the actions of Kyle Holaday. The Court of Appeal ruled that the trial judge should have dismissed the case as there was no evidence that Colonial controlled any aspect of Carol Holaday's home.
For instance, they didn't set specific hours for work, and they didn't set up surveillance either inside or outside the home. In addition, Colonial didn't pay for landscaping services or other work-related services to accommodate their workers in Holaday's home.
According to The San Diego Union-Tribune, the court also ruled that imposing such responsibility on employers would cause them "to undertake costly and time-consuming measures - among them, inspecting the home for weapons and other safety hazards, vetting all residents and visitors, and monitoring the daily activities of residents, visitors, and the conditions of the home at least during working hours."
It would also burden employees to accept the severe intrusion into their lives. Things like "modifications to their homes, and working in a state of siege." To remain employed, workers would have to sacrifice privacy to an extreme degree.
While Colonial's case was dismissed, with prejudice, this does not mean that employers have no duty to their remote employees, but simply that they cannot be held liable for the outcome or occurrence of third-party violence, like in Schindler Dominguez's cases. Colonial could not have known that Kyle being present in the home was a cause for concern, and because of this, they had no liability in the events that occurred in March 2017.