Employment-Related Dispute Not Transformed Into a Purely Personal Dispute Solely Due to the Passage of Time
Lawler and Cole CPAs, LLC, and Alabama Retail Association d/b/a Alabama Retail Comp v. Donald Cole
Lawler and Cole CPAs, LLC (“the employer”), and Alabama Retail Association d/b/a Alabama Retail Comp (“Alabama Retail”) appealed from a judgment of the Marion Circuit Court (“the trial court”) awarding workers’ compensation benefits to Donald Cole (“Cole”), the surviving spouse of Linda Cole, who is deceased, under the Alabama Workers’ Compensation Act (“the Act”).
On October 5, 2016, Cole filed a complaint against the employer and Alabama Retail, asserting that Linda Cole (“the employee”) had been employed by the employer, that the employee died while at her place of employment, and that the employer and Alabama Retail failed to pay Cole any workers’ compensation benefits as a result of the death which were permitted by the statute. On October 26, 2017, the trial court entered a summary judgment in favor of Cole. This appeal followed.
The facts regarding the circumstances of the employee’s death are undisputed. On February 20, 2016, the employee was on the employment premises performing her duties for the employer as an accountant when Jimmy Dale Cooper entered the premises for the express purpose of assaulting the employee and shot and killed the employee. Cooper had been a long-time client of the employee. At some point, Cooper’s business underwent a sales-tax audit resulting in liability for unpaid sales taxes. Subsequently, the Alabama Department of Industrial Relations audited Cooper’s business and Cooper refused to comply with their requests. The employee informed Cooper she could not provide him accounting services if he would not comply with the law. Cooper found a new accountant and ultimately had to pay fines and penalties attributed to his failure to classify certain workers as employees within his business and for failing to pay appropriate withholding taxes.
The record contains no evidence indicating that the employee and Cooper had any further interaction. However, there is evidence that Cooper blamed his tax problems on the employee and was still upset about this just prior to killing her.
The employer and Alabama Retail argued that her death was not caused by an accident arising out of her employment. The Court pointed out that this was indeed an accident arising under the Act, and explained for an intentional assault upon an employee to be considered an accident arising out of the employment, “the rational mind must be able to trace the resultant [death] to a proximate cause set in motion by the employment, and not by some other agency.” Here, the Court found the evidence was clear that Cooper killed the employee solely because of their working relationship. While Cooper ended his business relationship with the employee around 2007, the Court rejected the notion that this employment-related dispute would be transformed into a purely personal dispute based exclusively on the passage of time. The Court found the undisputed evidence indicated that Cooper’s grievance with the employee remained rooted in their working relationship. Therefore, this Court affirmed the trial court’s judgment awarding benefits to Cole.