Attacker’s Mental Illness Does Not Negate Assault Exception for Workers’ Compensation

By Robert S. Teachout, SHRM-SCP May 11, 2023

Takeaway: Employers can contest workers' compensation claims for several reasons, many of which depend on the employer's location and corresponding state law. State laws can vary widely in defining if an injury is compensable.

​An assailant's mental illness did not alter the finding that his attack on a hotel employee was intentional and personal, the Minnesota Supreme Court held, affirming the findings of the Workers Compensation Court of Appeals (WCCA) that the claim fell within the scope of the state's assault exception for a covered injury.

In June 2018, while the employee was cleaning a hotel room, he was attacked by an acquaintance with whom he had previously worked at a different employer. The attacker, because of a mental illness, falsely believed that the employee was involved in killing his uncle. The uncle had died from a heart ailment with no evidence of foul play.

The employee was severely injured and filed a claim for workers' compensation benefits. Minnesota has a no-fault workers' compensation program and awards benefits for the personal injury or death of an employee arising out of and in the course of employment. However, the compensation judge denied the claim on the basis of the statutory definition of "personal injury." The definition excludes Injuries caused by an individual who intended to injure the employee because of personal reasons, completely unrelated to employment—called the "assault exception."

The compensation judge held that the assault exception does not require reasonable or rational thought and stated that "there is no carve-out exception for mental illness." The compensation judge also reasoned that the threshold determination that the attacker was motivated for purely personal reasons was enough to bar the workers' compensation claim. The judge also rejected the argument that the employment environment increased the employee's risk of injury.

The WCCA agreed on appeal, and the employee then appealed the ruling to the state Supreme Court.

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The employee argued that an assailant who was declared incompetent to stand trial following an assault cannot be found to have formed the intent necessary under the assault exception.

Looking at the plain meaning of the word, the court determined that a third party's act is intended when it is deliberate or intentional. Under workers' compensation law, an act is intended to injure when the third party has the injury of an employee as the object to be gained or achieved. Thus, the court reasoned, the only factor to consider in determining if an assailant's state of mind takes their action outside the coverage of the state's workers' compensation statutes is whether the assailant had the conscious and deliberate intent to inflict injury.

The court affirmed the WCCA's ruling, saying, "The assault exception does not require a specific level of rationality, but rather the assailant must consciously and deliberately act to injure the employee for personal reasons."

Profit v. HRT Holdings, Minn., No. A22-0656 (March 29, 2023).

Robert S. Teachout, SHRM-SCP, works in the Washington D.C., area and is a legal editor for XpertHR, a service helping HR build successful and purposeful workplaces.



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