My mom was shot by her husband at work. Workers’ comp or not?

Julie Tassler was murdered on Christmas Eve in 2008 while on a smoke break from her job at an HSBC processing center in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Her husband, after being served divorce papers the night before, found her in her car and shot her before turning the gun on himself.

lady smoking.jpg

Now the estate of Julie Tassler is asking HSBC to pay worker’s compensation benefits to their two surviving children. Julie’s father has sued the British-owned bank and AIG, the insurance company that underwrites HSBC’s worker’s compensation costs, on her estate’s behalf.

Initially, the district court and the South Dakota Department of Labor and Regulation ruled against the family. The decision was appealed and the case is before the South Dakota Supreme Court.

At issue is, of course, whether there is any justification for the death to be considered a worker’s compensation issue. The lawyers for the estate of Julie Tassler claim that she would never have been shot had she not been at work.

That argument is based on two very important assumptions. First, the estate says that Julie was never away from her children other than when she went to work. Second, they say that her husband, Steven Tassler, would never have shot her in front of their kids. So, the only opportunity Steven had to commit the murder was when she was at work. According to the lawyers for the estate, the murder “couldn’t have happened anywhere else.”

Should the Supreme Court grant the appeal, the Tassler’s children, now 9 and 11 years old, would be entitled to two-thirds of Julie’s average weekly wage until they were 18, or 22 if they choose to go to college. They would also be able to collect funeral expenses for their mother.

The case is being watched carefully due to the precedent it would set with regard to holding an employer accountable for domestic violence that spilled over into the workplace.

Attorneys for the estate argue that Steven Tassler would not have had the opportunity “but for the constraints of [Julie’s] employment,” which places the employers in the path of responsibility. HSBC’s lawyers point out the slippery slope that employers would be standing on should the appeal be granted. “Every domestic assault would be work related and would be compensable because the only connection you have to show is that the employee had to be at work,” says HSBC attorney Eric DeNure.

An administrative law judge ruled that HSBC did not “contribute to the assault,” but the judge left the door open for appeal by saying the South Dakota Supreme Court had not directly addressed the idea of “whether injuries sustained as the result of a domestic assault arise out of the employment.” In other words, the Supreme Court must decide if an employer can be held even partially responsible for domestic violence that relates in any way to an employee.

There are some very meaningful questions here that are yet to be answered. There is no timetable for the Supreme Court’s ruling as yet.

Were this a Georgia workers’ compensation case, my assumption would be that the courts would find that this death is NOT work-related: i.e., not covered under the Georgia Workers’ Compensation Act. The insurer’s argument would be that the “dispute” causing the lady’s death was not related to her employment, but was instead related to her marriage to a vengeful, violent man (and that it happened during an unplanned smoke break).

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