Californians might be interested in learning about a recent case in Solano County that involved one employee attacking another at work. The injured employee sued his employer under a theory called negligent retention. California employers may be held liable for not firing a worker if the employers have reason to know that the worker has the propensity for committing wrongful actions. The jury reached a verdict on Aug. 1, 2016.
Factual background of the case
Gabriel Alfonso, the plaintiff, was attacked by his coworker, Thomas Avent, while he was at work on Sept. 11, 2012. Both men were employed by Miguel Rocha at the time of the assault. Nine days before the incident, Avent allegedly threatened Alfonso and another worker while the three were on a business trip. Alfonso reported the threats to the police, and Avent was arrested.
When Avent was released from jail, Rocha allowed him to return to work despite Alfonso’s objections. Rocha placed Avent on a short leave so that he could cool off. Upon Avent’s return, he immediately assaulted Alfonso upon seeing him. Alfonso suffered numerous facial and nasal fractures during the assault, including to his right orbital socket.
Alfonso argued that Rocha knew that Avent posed a danger to Alfonso but failed to protect Alfonso. He stated that Rocha negligently supervised and negligently retained the defendant, resulting in the assault and Alfonso’s subsequent injuries and corresponding losses. He also argued that Rocha’s allowing Avent to come on the premises when he knew that he was unfit was an improper use of the business’s property and that he was also accountable under a premises liability theory. The plaintiff underwent two surgeries and was diagnosed with a chronic facial pain condition because of damaged nerves. He was also diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after the attack.
Rocha disputed liability throughout the case. He argued that he had no reason to know that Avent would assault Alfonso. According to Rocha, Avent and Alfonso had worked together for almost 10 years without having any problems. He also said that Alfonso returned to work after the threat incident without complaining and that the attack was not foreseeable. He also argued that no one fully discussed the facts of the previous threat incident fully with him. Finally, the defendant argued that Alfonso and Avent were responsible for the assault and the resulting injuries to Alfonso. The defendant also argued that the plaintiff had greatly exaggerated the extent of his injuries and losses. The defendant presented experts who opined that the plaintiff was malingering in contrast to the experts presented by the plaintiff.
Demand and offer
Before trial, the plaintiff made a demand of $1 million, which was the policy limit of the defendant’s insurance policy. The defendant’s final offer before trial was $25,000.
After a trial that lasted for three weeks, the jury deliberated for five hours before reaching a verdict in favor of the plaintiff. The gross verdict amount was $1,935,150.47. They jury assigned 60 percent of the fault to the defendant and 20 percent each to Avent and Alfonso. The net award to Alfonso was $1,248,123.38 after the comparative fault deductions. Of the total verdict, $750,000 was assessed for past non-economic losses, $750,000 for future non-economic losses, $50,000 for past lost income, $370,000 for future lost income and $15,150 for medical expenses.
Negligent retention laws in California
Under California’s common law, negligent retention is a recognized cause of action. When an employer has reason to know or knew that an employee is unfit or incompetent to perform his or her job, the employee’s incompetence or unfitness poses a risk of harm to others, and the employee does harm another person, the employer may be held liable for negligently retaining him or her. Plaintiffs must be able to prove that they were harmed by the employee and that the employer’s negligent retention of the employee caused the resulting incident and harm.
Comparative fault in California
Another legal principle that is illustrated by the case is the idea of comparative fault. In California, a plaintiff’s recovery will be reduced if some of the fault is attributed to him or her. Since the plaintiff in this case was assessed to be 20 percent at fault, his award was automatically reduced by that amount. Each defendant is only responsible for paying the amount attributable to him or her. Since Rocha was found to be 60 percent at fault, the amount he is deemed responsible for paying to the plaintiff was reduced to 60 percent of the gross verdict amount.
Contact an attorney
If you have been assaulted at work by a coworker, you may be able to recover damages against your employer if he or she knew or should have known that your coworker had the propensity to harm others. Contact an experienced personal injury attorney to schedule a consultation and learn more about your rights in your own case.