The Taneka Talley Case – When Does Injury or Death “Arise” Out of Employment?

The phrase "AOE/COE" generally rolls off the tongue quite easily when adjusting California workers' compensation claims. There are times, however, that deciding whether a claim is compensable is not so easy a task. That was the situation confronting Dollar Tree stores when an employee, Taneka Talley, was murdered in March of 2006 by an assailant who walked into their store in Fairfield, California, after having professed that he wanted to kill an African-American. There was no evidence that the assailant, who was white, knew the victim.

The initial denial of death benefits by Dollar Tree’s claims administrator, Specialty Risk Services, touched off massive protests and indignation. Ultimately, Dollar Tree agreed to the compensability of the claim and settled it in January of this year. The debate is continuing, however, as to whether the original denial was truly supported under California’s workers’ compensation laws. That debate has also generated interest in the California Legislature.

The opposing views on this tragedy were reported in the San Francisco Chronicle on December 8, 2008: "(o)n-the-job injuries are not covered, however, if they arise from purely personal motives - for example, if an estranged spouse comes to the workplace and attacks an employee because of a private grudge." The lawyer representing the interests of the deceased and her family then noted, "...that there was nothing personal about the attack from a total stranger, and that if Talley hadn't been at work that day, she would still be alive."

Case Law Requires a Causal Connection to Employment

Fortunately, the facts of the Talley case are not often seen in workers' compensation claims. As can be expected, reported appellate cases turn on very specific fact patterns.  From these fact patterns, however, emerges a general rule as to when an injury “arises out of employment. The general rule was articulated in Transactron, Inc. v. Workers' Comp. Appeals Bd. (1977), 68 Cal.App.3d 233:

“The role of employment in the shooting is inconsequential when it merely provides a place where the assailant can find the victim. Where the nature of the employee's duties places her in no particularly dangerous or isolated position, or where the risk of harm is not limited to the place of employment and where the attack occurs on the premises not because the victim was performing the duties of employment at the time of assault but because she merely was there, and where the nature of employment was not part of an assailant's plan to isolate or trap the victim, the injury does not arise out of the employment.” (Citations omitted) 68 Cal.App.3d at 239.

In Transactron, the victim was shot and killed by her boyfriend. That fact in and of itself, however, is not always dispositive. Thus, in California Comp. & Fire Co. v. Workmen's Comp. App. Bd, (1968) 68 Cal.2d 157, the California Supreme Court found that the murder of an ex-wife by her former husband was compensable because her job exposed her to a peculiar risk, in this case being a salesperson who travelled to potential customers. As stated by the Court: “(t)here is no sound reason to deny compensation to an employee whose duties expose her to a peculiar risk of assault merely because the assailant was motivated by personal animus.” 68 Cal.2d at 162.

In Madin v. Industrial Acc. Com. (1956), 46 Cal.2d 90, a couple who were acting as property managers for a rental property were injured when a bulldozer on an adjacent property was started by vandals and it crashed out of control into the unit occupied by the couple. It was clear that the employer had no control over the bulldozer or any interest in the work being done on the adjacent property. Citing prior cases, the Supreme Court noted, “…it has been held in various situations that injuries occurring in the course of employment also arise out of the employment and hence were compensable although the factor which put in motion the force causing the injury was something over which the employer had no control and with which he had no connection.” 46 Cal.2d at 93.

Later, in State Compensation Ins. Fund v. Workers' Comp. Appeals Bd. (1982) 133 Cal.App.3d 643, 184 Cal.Rptr. 111, the Court of Appeal also addressed the issue of personal motives:

“Although it was important for Williams to get ahold of the bogus check from Castellanos before it cleared the bank, at all times Williams and his cohorts intended to commit a racially motivated killing involving the "Mexicans," i.e., Vargas and Castellanos. In our opinion, the Board ignored the racial aspect of the killings but merely focused on the fact that Vargas did not participate in the negotiations for the sale of Castellanos' car. Even though Vargas may have been a virtual stranger to the killers, it is difficult to see how the Board could possibly have concluded that there was no personal motivation for the killing of Vargas. Thus, the racial motive could cut off the causation between the employment and the deaths. The evidence showed that the cause of the deaths was unrelated to employment. The motive was personal and it was unreasonable for the Board to conclude otherwise.” 133 Cal.App.3d 656.

The record, however, established that Williams and his cohorts went to the bunkhouse area where the victims lived specifically to find them and to rob them based upon business dealings between them earlier that day. The fact that one of the victims, Vargas, was a “virtual stranger”  is significantly different from being a complete stranger. Furthermore, the fact that the assailants uttered racists comments after the business dealings earlier in the day should not have been viewed by the Court as dispositive of the issue of whether there was a causal connection between employment and the injuries. The causal connection would have been broken regardless because of the criminal scheme hatched earlier in the day after the business dealings between the assailants and their victims. Consequently, this is not a case comparable to the Talley case where it was clear that the assailant did not know the victim.

Proposed Legislation Should Be Narrowly Crafted to Clarify Rather than Expand What Constitutes Arising Out of Employment

From these cases, a strong argument can be made that there was a sufficient causal connection with employment to resolve the compensability issue in favor of the dependents of Taneka Talley. Efforts to address this case in the California Legislature, Assembly Bill 1093 (Yamada) and Senate Bill 145 (DeSaulnier) are, in their current form, unnecessarily complicated. While motives are not in all cases irrelevant to the determination of whether an injury in the course of employment also arises from employment, in this particular case the more significant fact was that the assailant and his victim were not acquainted in any way. Clarifying that under such circumstances a claim will be determined to arise out of employment would go a long way to make certain that delays in the resolution of such claims are less likely to happen in the future.

© Copyright 2009. Reprinted with permission.