Workers’ Compensation Bars Doctor Who Was Shot at New York Hospital From Suing

By | May 20, 2024

New York’s highest court has ruled that a doctor who was injured in a shooting at the hospital where he works cannot sue his employer, finding that his injuries arose out of his employment and are thus covered by workers’ compensation as the sole remedy.

The New York Court of Appeals reversed a lower appellate court that allowed the doctor to sue the hospital because it reasoned that uncertainty about the shooter’s motives cast doubt on the connection of the doctor’s injuries to the workplace.

The high court, citing the law and past cases, affirmed that injuries that arise in the court of employment are presumed to be work-related and covered by workers’ compensation unless there is “substantial evidence” to rebut this presumption. The high court stated that “a lack of evidence as to the motivation for the assault does not rebut that presumption.”

Thus, the presumption that the injuries were work-related applied and was unrebutted, and the appellate division’s contrary conclusion was error.

On June 30, 2017, Henry Bello, a former employee of Bronx-Lebanon Hospital (BLH), entered the hospital wearing a doctor’s white medical coat, under which he hid a loaded AR-15 rifle, ammunition magazines, and a juice container filled with gasoline. He proceeded to the 16th floor of the hospital, a non-public area, where Justin Timperio was working as a first-year resident. Bello opened fire, killing one doctor and wounding five members of the medical staff—including Timperio—before killing himself.

Bello and Timperio were strangers prior to the shooting; they never worked at BLH at the same time and had no other prior contact.

The hospital requested a decision from the Workers’ Compensation Board to establish a claim under the workers’ compensation law. While the matter was proceeding before a workers’ compensation law judge, Timperio filed a negligence action in federal court against BLH and the store that sold Bello the rifle he used in the shooting.

After the federal court rejected BLH’s attempt to have the case dismissed, it stayed the holding that Timperio’s injuries were not compensable because “there was no evidence suggesting that the shooting originated in work-related differences.”

In September 2020, a workers’ compensation law judge determined that Timperio’s injuries were compensable. Timperio appealed to the Workers’ Compensation Board, which affirmed the decision.

The appellate division reversed the Workers’ Compensation Board. The appellate court acknowledged that, to be compensable under the workers’ compensation law, an injury must have arisen “out of and in the course of a worker’s employment” and that an injury that arose in the course of employment is presumed to have arisen out of employment as well. The court also acknowledged the high court’s previous holding that an award of compensation may be sustained “so long as there is any nexus, however slender, between the motivation for the assault and the employment.”

The appellate court, however, deemed “such nexus . . . lacking.” It wrongly held that the lack of evidence establishing any employment-related animus “was sufficient to rebut the presumption” and concluded that the claim was therefore not compensable.

In reversing the appellate ruling, the high court stressed that the presumption is rebuttable by “substantial evidence” establishing that it was not the workplace itself that exposed the employee to harm. But where the assault occurs in the course of employment and there is no evidence as to its motivation, the presumption is triggered and is not rebutted.

“Once it has been established that an employee was assaulted ‘in the course of’ employment, the presumption—unless rebutted—obviates the need for an affirmative showing that the assault arose ‘out of’ the employment,” the court reiterated.

In the case before it, the high court said it is undisputed that the assault occurred in the course of Timperio’s employment. It is also undisputed that the record includes no evidence of the motivation for the assault or any indication of a prior relationship between the assailant and the claimant.

The appellate division erred in essentially inverting the “nexus” standard by requiring that the workers’ compensation board provide evidence of a nexus to employment. Instead, “an assault which arose in the course of employment is presumed to have arisen out of the employment, absent substantial evidence that the assault was motivated by purely personal animosity,” the high court stated.

The Court of Appeals said its ruling accords with the text and purpose of the workers’ compensation law to “protect workers and their dependents from want in case of injury’ on the job.” To that end, the law establishes a “broad scheme of compensation” intended to ensure a “swift and sure source of benefits to injured employees” including in circumstances where an employee might not be able to obtain relief through a common law tort action.

The appellate division ruling is reversed and the decision of the Workers’ Compensation Board reinstated.

Topics Lawsuits New York Workers' Compensation Talent

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