“This year, the U.S. has already had more than 30 mass shootings.” That quote alone would comfortably capture attention no matter what time of year it was reported. And yet that is how we started the first month of 2023. In fact, this very statement alluding to targeted violence was reported by NPR’s Ari Shapiro in January of 2023, just 25 days into the new year.
The NPR story centered around the impact violence is having on mental health and identified that these shootings were a significant cause of stress for the general public. Even when we are not directly impacted from the reported violence, we still feel significant anxiety and begin to worry about our own safety, particularly in the workplace where most of these incidents occur.
No longer are these attacks generally interpreted as isolated incidents taking place only in specific industries or businesses. They have become common in the American psyche and the moniker, “workplace violence” is well understood. In fact, the US Department of Labor cites acts of violence and other injuries as the third-leading cause of fatal workplace injuries in the US.
For those of us who have not been directly impacted by the violence, we can also increasingly feel distressed, and our continued hypervigilance is eroding our sense of normalcy. Those who are directly affected by these tragedies, especially those who experience the most loss, have increased potential for PTSD, depression, and lasting traumas associated with tremendous grief.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that most people want to do something to counter this violence but continue to be frustrated at the inability to affect and see changes. Whether it’s the same debate for or against gun control, both sides are tired of the stalemate. Though it’s becoming clearer that society is no longer satisfied with the status quo and are demanding accountability in the workplace. This accountability is being handed down through the courts.
Courts demand accountability with billions in fines.
From government and military agencies to individual corporate officers, courts are demanding tighter scrutiny by employers, and oversight regarding how personnel complaints and concerns of violence are handled in the workplace. This increasing pressure for accountability is forcing organizations of all sizes to confront its own responsibility in preventing violence and protecting its employees.
The American Bar Association cites a shift in recent court decisions and predicts the trend will be that more will be held liable for failing to prevent acts of violence. Particularly as incidents become more frequent and more widely reported, the argument that an incident was unforeseeable is no longer good enough.
The following jury awards, court rulings, and pending lawsuits align with this trend. Juries are demanding prevention and preparedness even from government agencies who have traditionally enjoyed a level of impunity. Liability and accountability are being sought, and in some cases, delivered in unprecedented monetary sums.
- The Justice Department was found negligent and will pay $130 million to the victims of the Parkland high school shootings because the FBI failed to properly investigate tips about the assailant it had received prior to the shooting. The lawsuit argued that the crime was preventable. The FBI acknowledged that they had not followed its own protocols and failed to pursue information provided from their tipline and social media postings from the assailant.
- The US Air Force was ordered to pay more than $230 million to victims of those killed in Sutherland Springs by a former Air Force Airman (employee) who was discharged in 2014. The court ruled that the Air Force was liable because it failed to report (six times) the Airman’s previous assault and domestic violence convictions and other related information to the FBI. As that may have prevented him from buying the rifle used to in the attack.
- MGM resorts agree to pay $800 million settlement to shooting victims. 58 people were killed in the attack where the assailant shot at victims from his hotel room overlooking an open-air concert in Las Vegas. The MGM casino was accused of negligence, wrongful death and liability, failing to protect people at the concert venue, and failing to stop the shooter from amassing weapons and ammunition in his room over several days.
- Cable company Charter Spectrum was ordered to pay over $1 billion to the family of the victim who was murdered in her home by a Spectrum technician that had previously performed a service call to the residence. Despite the company arguing that the employee’s act of violence was unforeseeable, the court cited Spectrum’s lack of due diligence by hiring the employee without reviewing his work history and ignored behavioral red flags during his employment. The jury had initially awarded the victim more than $7 billion in damages, but was lowered to $1.1 billion by the presiding judge.
- A $50 million lawsuit launched against Walmart by an employee who survived a workplace shooting perpetrated by a Walmart manager, alleges that the company knew of the assailant’s violent behavior and failed to protect the workers. The employee is faulting Walmart and accusing the company of not taking investigative action despite numerous complaints about his behavior. This case is still pending as of March 2023.
- Victims of the Uvalde school shooting have filed a $27 billion class-action lawsuit against the police, the city, and school officials for the attack. 19 children and two teachers were among the victims. The lawsuit claims their deaths could have been preventable if not for the collective negligence and failure of the law enforcement officials at the scene. A separate group of survivors have also filed an additional $6 billion suit against Daniel Defense, a company that manufactures the firearm used. This case is still pending as of March 2023.
In all of the cases above, courts are finding convincing arguments surrounding the prevention of these attacks. That is, these targeted attacks were foreseeable and could have been prevented. The courts determined that the responsible parties were negligent, failed to act, and did not satisfy their duty to protect their employees and the community.
But is workplace violence and targeted attacks preventable?
A recent publication by the US Secret Service’s National Threat Assessment Center, analysis of 173 attacks in the US from 2016 to 2020, offered an unambiguous response. To quote from its executive summary, “…targeted violence is preventable when communities are equipped with the appropriate tools, training, and resources…” Because most locations of attacks were businesses, one of the key implications of this report is squarely directed at businesses; to establish a workplace violence prevention plan to better “identify, assess, and intervene with current employees, former employees, and customers who may pose a risk of violence.”
As reported by the American Bar Association, the perception of whether targeted violence and incidents involving violence in the workplace are foreseeable has begun to shift. In other words, exposure to litigation and significant penalties can now more readily include everyone from business owners of where the incident occurred, to security firms and law enforcement, and even parents of the assailant.
As was the case where parents of a Michigan school shooting suspect was charged with involuntary manslaughter for missed opportunities in preventing the tragedy despite knowing that their son had access to a weapon, and that he was deeply troubled. Indeed, the legal bar of foreseeability and preventability has been lowered.
Crime is trending upward.
According to a recent 60 Minutes interview, FBI Director Christopher Wray acknowledged that there was a 29% increase in murder in the US in 2020, almost 5,000 more people were killed than in 2019. Violent crimes such as murder and aggravated assault saw record increases, by another 4 percent in 2021. And in his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee in August 2022, the FBI Director stated that the top concern from law enforcement leadership around the country is the increasing violence in their communities.
Exacerbating this trend are the difficult challenges still present in communities where trust remains low for law enforcement and demands to defund the police continue.
Some cities around the country are seeing how lawlessness hampers economic growth and recovery. Starbucks cited increased violence and the need to protect employees and customers when it shuttered 16 stores, with six of them in Seattle alone. Amazon is taking similar approaches by moving employees, or simply not renewing leases in some of its downtown locations, impacting approximately 2,000 employees.
A demand for remedies.
The outcry by the public for remedy has also caused state legislatures to act. New Jersey recently proposed legislation requiring places of worship, movie theaters, and arenas where more than 500 to 5,000 people can gather respectively, to enact enhanced security requirements and submit emergency plans for active shooters. The state of Tennessee now requires private security guards receive de-escalation training before they can work in night clubs and bars.
As recent as 2017, the Canadian province of Ontario enacted comprehensive requirements for companies to assess the risk of workplace violence in their facilities and present a full emergency plan to the government’s joint health and safety committee. At PRS, we highlighted the specific requirements of the new legislation at the time and our article can be found here.
How can we help you?
As violence increases, the cost of negligence increases as well. No longer are businesses and companies shielded from traditional beliefs that used to protect organizations from third party negligence. Juries are sending clear messages on who they consider the liable party. Legislatures are also aggressively seeking ways to address the violence, by mandating training and ensuring that emergency plans are developed for each and every workplace.
In other words, we are all on notice to ensure that our organizations develop plans for workplace violence prevention, conduct threat and security assessments, and update emergency response plans.
For nearly 10 years, PRS has been active in assisting our clients to comply with latest requirements of workplace violence prevention laws and associated best practices. We are uniquely qualified and have certified professionals on our team to help you prepare and protect your people. Call on us to help you get started on a workplace violence prevention plan or a security risk assessment.