Transit Worker Can Be Compensated, Cannot Sue Employer for Assault Injuries

By | December 4, 2020

A District of Columbia appeals court held that a Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) worker cannot sue his employer after requesting compensation under the Virginia Workers’ Compensation Act for an assault he suffered on the job.

A district court previously found that because plaintiff Teshome Workagegnehu’s assault resulted from his employment, he cannot seek further damages against his employer after being unsatisfied with a workers’ compensation order he requested. The appeals court affirmed this decision.

This comes after Workagegnehu and Martin Van Buren, both WMATA employees, were in a Metro station kiosk in Arlington, Va., when a customer asked for help with using the SmarTrip vending machine. Van Buren swore at and dismissed the customer, according to the appeals court opinion document.

Workagegnehu then volunteered to help since he was going to maintain the machines anyway, but Van Buren told Workagegnehu not to touch the machines. However, Workagegnehu did help the customer, performed his maintenance and returned to the kiosk. Van Buren told Workagegnehu it was not his responsibility to help customers and the two discussed their job responsibilities, the opinion document stated.

During this conversation, Van Buren suddenly attacked Workagegnehu, pinning him to the ground and punching him until he was unconscious. When Workagegnehu stood to leave, Van Buren attacked him again. Several customers and other employees saw the incident. Police arrested Van Buren, who was later convicted of assault, while Workagegnehu sustained severe injuries and required hospitalization.

Workagegnehu first tried to recover the cost of his hospital bills through the Virginia Workers’ Compensation Commission. Six weeks later, Workagegnehu sued WMATA and its general manager, Paul Wiedefelt, for assault and battery as well as intentional infliction of emotional distress in the District Court for the District of Columbia.

Later, Workagegnehu and WMATA requested a workers’ compensation order in Virginia. This came eight days after Workagegnehu filed his complaint in district court, and he continued to pursue his district court claim despite the workers’ compensation order.

The defendants moved to dismiss Workagegnehu’s suit for lack of subject matter jurisdiction and failure to state a claim. The district court found that it had jurisdiction to hear Workagegnehu’s claims but granted the motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim. This is because the court held that Virginia’s Workers’ Compensation Act barred Workagegnehu’s claim since his injury arose out of his employment. Workagegnehu appealed the dismissal, and his appeal was taken up by the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

The Virginia Workers’ Compensation Act requires employers and employees to pay and accept compensation for accidental personal injury or death arising out of employment. It provides employees with legally guaranteed compensation in exchange for the employer’s immunity from suit, the appeals court opinion stated.

“When an employee sustains such an injury, the Act provides the sole and exclusive remedy available against the employer,” the appeals court document explained.

In Workagegnehu’s case, the appeals court found that his assault resulted from the way he carried out his responsibilities as a WMATA employee rather than being directed against him as a personal attack.

“While assaults are often personal, they are not necessarily so,” Senior Circuit Judge David Sentelle wrote in his opinion. “If a coworker assaults a fellow employee because of a workplace dispute about, for instance, how the employee performed her work, or what the scope of her responsibilities are, then injuries from that assault arise out of employment.”

With this in mind, the appeals court found that the Virginia Workers’ Compensation Act bars Workagegnehu’s further claims.

“The fact that Workagegnehu already agreed to a workers’ compensation award and stipulated that his injuries arose from a work-related accident reinforces our conclusion,” Sentelle wrote. “It would fatally undermine that scheme to allow plaintiffs to secure an award from the workers’ compensation commission and then try to get a larger one in court.”

The appeals court affirmed the previous judgment of the district court. The case is Workagegnehu v. Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.

About Elizabeth Blosfield

Elizabeth Blosfield is the East region editor for Insurance Journal. She can be reached at More from Elizabeth Blosfield

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