Important Win Against Employer For Inflicting Serious Emotional Distress

Unfortunately, lots of people are abused at work. Most of the time, there's no case. The law simply does not permit people to sue their bosses just because they're mean, and that makes sense.

But every once in awhile, the abuse is so severe and outrageous, that it constitutes a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress.

It's not often that these claims are recognized, but  just recently one employee claimed victory in  Rothwell v. Nine Miles School District , a case that truly meets the definition of outrageous.

Here's what happened in the case. 

Debbie Rothwell was employed as a custodian for Nine Miles Falls School District for eight years. Her latest assignment was at Lakeside High School near Spokane.

One day Rothwell was called  and asked to report to her shift early. When she arrived, she found out that a student had committed suicide in the main entrance of the high school by shooting himself in the head.

Rothwell was ordered by the Superintendent to clean up the mess. When she heard the name of the suicide victim, whom she knew personally, she became extremely upset and left for 30 minutes to compose herself.

She came back and was then ordered to go through classrooms to look for bombs. The school principal accompanied her.

After she finished the bomb search, she was ordered again to clean up the suicide scene. In the midst of it,  she found a book bag. Not knowing it belonged to the victim, she began removing its contents but was then told by the police to to drop the bag and go home.

When Rothwell returned, she watched the bomb squad detonate a pipe from the book bag she had picked up and dropped earlier.  She also learned that another bomb had been detonated on the football field while she was at home. Understandably, these events shocked and frightened her.

Rothwell remained at the scene and cleaned all night long.  She was told to "make it look as if nothing had happened at the school."

According to the opinion in the case:

At approximately 2:00 a.m., Ms Rothwell resumed cleaning the suicide scene inside the school. Ms. Rothwell complied with Superinendent Green's directions to clean and dump everything at the scene, which included needles, plastic gloves, brain matter, bone bits, and blood.

She finished cleaning at approximately 4:15 a.m.  By that time, she was emotionally distraught and physically ill.

For several days thereafter, students and others brought candles and cards to the scene of the suicide. Ms. Rothwell was ordered to clean up those items each night, which was extremely emotionally disturbing to her.

As a result of these events, Rothwell became sick from post traumatic stress disorder ("PTSD").  She filed a lawsuit against Nine Miles School District and the Superintendent  for intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress, claiming that she "suffered physical and emotional distress as a proximate result " of the District's and Superintendent's actions.

The District filed a motion asking the trial court to throw out the case on the grounds that it was barred by Washington's  workers' compensation statute.

Generally speaking, workers' compensation statutes throughout the United States provide compensation and medical care for employees:

  • who suffer an injury at work on account of their employer's negligence
  • who are injured because of an occupational disease 

In exchange for the state provided compensation, employees give up their right to sue their employers for their injuries.

According to the District, since Rothwell  was injured in the course of her employment , she was not permitted to sue her employer. If she had a claim, according to the District,  it needed to be filed as a worker's compensation claim, not a lawsuit.

The trial court  agreed, granted the motion and dismissed Rothwell's case.

Rothwell appealed and argued that her case was not barred by the workers compensation act because it was not based on an "injury" or "occupational disease" as defined by the act. 

In sum, she argued:

1. An "injury" is defined as a sudden event which produces an immediate result

  • this was not a sudden traumatic event which produced an immediate result

  • Rothwell's post traumatic stress disorder was caused by the performance of traumatizing duties over a period of several days

2." Occupational disease" is a disease or infection arising out of employment

  •  Claims based on mental conditions or mental disabilities caused by stress do not fall within   the definition of occupational disease 

In other words, Rothwell's contention was that the stress-induced mental condition was not an "industrial injury under the Act".

The Court of Appeals agreed and that's big news.  In it's opinion the Court wrote:

Ms. Rothwell's PTSD did not result from a single traumatic event; rather it resulted from a series of incidents over a period of a few days.  Furthermore, her trauma did not immediately result in Ms. Rothwell's PTSD.  

Therefore, we conclude that Ms. Rothwell's  PTSD is not an injury or occupational disease under the Act and her claims against the District are not barred by the Act's exclusive remedy provision. We reverse the trial court's dismissal of Ms. Rothwell's claims.

I worked on a similar issue 25 years ago.  I represented the family of a man named Mocky Jaworksi who had over 40 years on the job with a manufacturing company in Cleveland.

Without going into detail, the story is that Mocky was seriously abused and humiliated by a new boss over a two year period. The result was a serious undiagnosed depression.  Mocky was six months short of retirement and desperately needed his health coverage because his wife had cancer, so he couldn't quit the job. 

The final humiliation at work did him in. Mocky committed suicide.

After the funeral, Mocky's co-workers told Mrs. Jaworski and her daughter the details of what had happened to Mocky at work.  Other than a new boss and new job assignment, Mocky concealed his distress from his family.  "Jerry killed him," they said.

With evidence of extreme and outrageous conduct, and expert forensic psychiatric testimony of severe depression leading to suicide,  we filed the claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress against Mocky's  boss and his employer.

Just like this case,  Mocky's employer filed a motion claiming that the case was barred by Ohio's worker's compensation statute. After two years of briefing, the trial court finally ruled in our favor,and held that our case was not barred by the workers' compensation statute.

After the testimony of Mrs. Jaworski and some of the co-workers, the case settled in the middle of the trial.

That's why it was quite interesting for me to read a case in which the lawyers were fighting the same battle we fought 25 years ago.

When we were able to overcome the workers' compensation bar in Mocky's case and proceed on an intentional infliction of emotional distress case against an employer because of the conduct of a supervisor, we considered it a significant victory for employee rights. The Rothwell case is a significant victory as well.

Once you overcome the workers' compensation issue, it's still important to understand that employees who bring claims for Intentional infliction of emotional distress against their employers are held to a very high threshold of proof.

The cases simply can not be based on the mean spirited stuff that people go through every day at work. There must be evidence of truly indecent and outrageous conduct as well as serious emotional distress.

But as these cases show, every once in a while, the conduct is so severe and outrageous, and the emotional distress is so severe, that employers will be held legally responsible.

It's important for supervisors to understand that there are boundaries which can't be crossed and for which they will be accountable. This case sends that message.

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