A CALIFORNIA COURT HOLDS THAT AN EMPLOYER IS NOT LIABLE FOR THIRD-PARTY CRIMINAL HARM IN A WORK-FROM-HOME ENVIRONMENT

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Patricia Tsipras

April 20, 2022

The law generally requires an employer to provide its employees with a safe place to conduct their work.  Given the prevalence of work-from-home arrangements during the COVID-19 pandemic, the boundaries of that requirement have been tested.  In a recent case – Colonial Van & Storage v. Superior Court of Fresno County, No. B317125 – the California Court of Appeals ruled that an employer’s duty does not include protecting workers and business associates from third-party criminal harm in an employee’s residence.

Background
Holaday was a dispatcher employed by Colonial Van & Storage.  She was permitted to work from home at her discretion.  She and her husband, Wilcoxson, a salesperson who Colonial also employed, hosted a dinner at their home in March 2017.  The dinner was a social event, but included networking and job-related discussions.  Dominguez, another Colonial employee, attended the dinner, as did Schindler, an employee of another moving company that worked with Colonial, who brought her five-month-old daughter.  Also present at the home that evening was Kyle, Holaday’s son and a friend of Dominguez.  Kyle was a veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.

During the dinner, Kyle left the room, returned with a handgun, and opened fire.  He killed Wilcoxson and the family dog.  He wounded Holaday, Dominguez, and Schindler.  A bullet grazed the ear of Schindler’s baby.

Dominguez and Schindler sued Colonial and Holaday for personal injury damages, alleging negligence, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and related claims.

The Court’s Analysis
After the California trial court denied Colonial’s motion to summarily dismiss the claims, Colonial filed a petition with the appeals court.  The Court of Appeals ultimately dismissed the claims, finding that “an employer does not have a duty to protect working-at-home employees from third-party criminal conduct as a matter of law.”

The court reached its conclusion after finding that Colonial did not own, possess, or control Holaday’s home.  The court further found that merely deriving a commercial benefit from a workplace does not amount to “control” for purposes of imposing liability.  The court also found that Colonial owed no duty to Dominguez based on the employer-employee relationship because the shooting was not at her place of employment, but at a private home that Colonial did not control.

The court further concluded that, even if Colonial controlled the home, it could not impose liability on Colonial because the harm was not foreseeable.  The court found no evidence that Colonial had actual knowledge that Kyle posed any risk.  Holaday’s knowledge of her son’s mental health issues could not be imputed to Colonial because her knowledge was not within the scope of her employment.

Lastly, the court concluded that public policy weighed heavily against imposing a duty on employers in such circumstances.

Takeaways
This decision is favorable for employers in that it seeks to limit employer liability while recognizing the importance of allowing employees to work from home.  The decision also provides useful guidance on how California (and perhaps other) courts will analyze claims that seek to impose liability in work-from-home arrangements.

 

*Special thanks to Ava Petrellese, our Pre-Law Intern through Temple University’s Fox School of Business, and Brooke Palma, our Office Administrator, for their contributions to this article.

 
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