Are employers responsible for the safety of remote workplaces?

As COVID-19 began its destructive trajectory across the world in early 2020, businesses were thrown into chaos as quarantine efforts forced office and manufacturing workers to stay home indefinitely. Weeks and months passed as economies tried to limp; moving people from office to remote work was like climbing Mount Everest.

Home office meetings on Zoom have become commonplace and efforts have been made to engage with others during times of isolation.

Additionally, companies have looked for ways to add perks to the job by increasing benefits to include allowances for home office supplies or upskilling efforts. And what started as a necessary experience has become a fluid working environment.

But what happens when remote workers are faced with life-threatening situations? Does their employer have to ensure their safety on work-related occasions? One case deals with what an employer is required to provide and what it does not provide.

Recent court case

In a recent California court case, 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, co-worker Carol Holaday, who was Colonial’s supervisor at the time, invited Crystal Dominguez to her home. Crystal worked for Colonial from the San Francisco office. Rachel Schindler and her baby joined her.

Carol did not tell her guests that her son, Kyle, who had suffered from PTSD since he was in the military, was at home and had a history of gun misuse.

The three wives and Holaday’s husband, Jim Wilcoxson, enjoyed a nice dinner and did some networking and other general work. Then Kyle emerged from where he had been during their work session and opened fire on the group. Jim Wilcoxson died and the two women were also shot.

Lawsuits filed

After the shooting, Schindler and Dominguez filed lawsuits against Carol Holaday and Colonial. But Colonial quickly built a defense on the assumption that they couldn’t have predicted Kyle’s behavior.

When the litigation finally ended, the California Court of Appeals in Colonial Van & Storage, Inc. v. Superior Court has ruled that an employer must take steps to provide a safe and violence-free work environment. However, the obligation “does not include ensuring that an offsite meeting place for colleagues and business associates, such as an employee’s private residence, is safe from criminal damage by third parties… “.

Employees are responsible

While there is no precedent for security in the remote workplace, especially when hosting colleagues 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.

Both Schindler’s and Dominguez’s cases have been consolidated with Colonial’s case.

As for the murder charges, Kyle Holaday has been declared legally insane and will likely spend the rest of his life in a psychiatric insane hospital. “The murder victim’s family members did not want to be questioned but said they wanted the defendant to serve time in prison – even taking into account the PTSD allegations,” ABC’s Sontaya Rose reported. ActionNews.

Findings of the Court

Colonial Van & Storage, Inc. was found not responsible for Kyle Holaday’s actions. The Court of Appeal ruled that the trial judge should have dismissed the case because there was no evidence that Colonial controlled any aspect of Carol Holaday’s home.

For example, they did not set specific working hours and did not set up surveillance either inside or outside the house. Additionally, Colonial did not pay landscaping or other work-related services to house its workers in Holaday’s house.

According to the San Diego Union-Tribune, the court also ruled that imposing such liability on employers would require them to “undertake costly and time-consuming measures – including, inspecting the home for weapons and other risks to security, screening all residents and visitors, and monitoring the daily activities of residents, visitors and conditions in the home at least during working hours.”

It would also force employees to accept the severe intrusion into their lives. Things like “modifications to their homes and working under siege”. To remain employed, workers would have to sacrifice their privacy to an extreme degree.

conclusion

While Colonial’s case was dismissed, with prejudice, this does not mean that employers have no obligation to their remote employees, merely that they cannot be held liable for the outcome or occurrence of third-party violence, such as in cases of Schindler Dominguez. Colonial could not have known that Kyle’s presence in the house was a cause for concern, and as such, they had no responsibility for the events that occurred in March 2017.

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