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Workers’ Compensation and the Personal Animus Exception

  • Dave Brown, Esquire
  • 06/29/2020

One of the most interesting and “juicy” areas of Pennsylvania workers’ compensation law involves the personal animus exception. The courts often have had to grapple with whether this exception applies, sometimes in cases in which employees have been murdered.

The general rule in Pennsylvania is that a person is entitled to workers’ comp. benefits (or the person’s heirs if the injuries are fatal) when injured in the course of their employment. There are a few exceptions to the rule, one of which is if the injury is caused by an act of a third person intended to injure the employee because of personal reasons, not for reasons pertaining to the employment relationship. This is called the personal animus exception. Animus is another word for hostility.

A Workers’ Compensation Judge, when presented with a case in which the personal animus exception is asserted, asks these questions: Is the dispute something that the employee brought from outside of the job or does the dispute stem from the person’s employment? Stated another way, did the assailant have a pre-existing relationship with his victim and intended to injure him for personal reasons? Because the law is geared to favor the injured worker, the employer and its insurance company have a heavy burden to defeat a claim based on this exception; they must present evidence, which is accepted by the Judge, that the assault was personal in nature.

Earlier in 2020, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania, which decides cases that are appealed from decisions of Workers’ Compensation Judges, ruled on a case involving a man named Vasquez who was killed at work by a co-worker named Atem. In defending the claim, the insurance company for the employer argued that the killing was fueled by personal animus which Mr. Atem harbored toward Mr. Vsaquez. Several people who worked with both men at the company testified before the Workers’ Compensation Judge that the two men got along very well at the workplace. While Mr. Atem claimed that Mr. Vasquez was “messing with him” by breaking into his locker and taking photographs of him, this was not substantiated. The Commonwealth Court arrived at the same conclusion as the Judge and the Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (which hears the initial appeal from the Judge’s decision): The personal animus exception did not apply because there was no evidence that Mr. Atem had any pre-existing hostility toward Mr. Vasquez. The Court added that even if Mr. Vasquez did break into Mr. Atem’s locker and take photographs of him, this happened at work and was not personal in nature. Therefore, Mr. Vasquez’s wife and dependent children were entitled to workers’ comp. benefits.

To illustrate an example in which the personal animus exception applied, preventing the payment of workers’ comp. benefits, let’s look at a case decided by the Commonwealth Court back in 2007. The principles from that case are still applicable today. A man named LeDonne lived in Pittsburgh but worked during the week at a construction site in New York City. He stayed in a motel in New Jersey. One night, while staying at the motel, Mr. LeDonne was shot to death.

A criminal investigation revealed that the shooter, Mr. McDonugh, was having an affair with Mr. LeDonne’s wife and that the murder was carried out because Mr. McDonough suspected that Mr. LeDonne had learned of the affair. In the workers’ comp. case, the Commonwealth Court agreed with the Judge and the Appeal Board that the personal animus exception applied because the reason Mr. LeDonne sustained fatal injuries had nothing to do with his employment; it was completely because his wife was having an affair with Mr. McDonugh.

We don’t want to worry you – killings at work are extremely rare However, non-fatal assaults in the workplace happen with more regularity. If you are assaulted at work by a co-worker or a person not employed by your employer – or if tragedy strikes and a family member is a victim of a homicide at work – please contact the firm of Pearson Koutcher Law. All we handle is workers’ comp. cases and one of our experienced lawyers will handle your case. You can be sure that the insurance company will fight your claim, and you need one of our lawyers on your side to fight back hard. Please call us for a free consultation.