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Violence in the Workplace

The Employer’s Duty to Provide a Safe Work Environment

Every day employees of companies large and small are potentially subject to acts of workplace violence.  Pursuant to the common law, employers have no duty to protect their employees from harm in the workplace.  However, employers and the insurance carriers who insure them must be aware that New York State laws and federal regulations require standards for safe work environments.

For example, Section 200 of the New York State Labor Law requires that employers provide employees a safe place to work.  The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) imposes similar standards on the federal side.

New York courts have taken the position that an employer can assume the duty to protect an employee from harm where a specific duty does not exist.  Ruiz v. Griffin, 71 AD3d 1112 (2nd Dept. 2010).  Therefore, if an employer sets a standard to provide for some type of employee safety, any failure in that standard could set the employer up for a finding of liability.

Many states, including New York, have sought to protect employees from violent crimes in the workplace through legislation such as New York’s Workplace Violation Prevention Act (codified in New York State Labor Law) and the New York State Department of Labor’s own standards.  Please note, however, that the Workplace Violation Prevention Act and the Department of Labor’s standards currently apply only to public employers of 20 or more employees.

In addition to the Labor Law, New York workers’ compensation laws also provide for damages to employees who are injured due to acts occurring at the workplace (see Section 11 of the New York State Compensation Law).  However, in some limited circumstances, the statutory prevention of third party lawsuits against employers as codified by Section 11 could be waived, thus permitting the employee to bring suit against the employer despite the Section 11 protections.

What is the Responsibility of Employers?

It is incumbent upon employers to effectuate standards and procedures to ensure that their employees are safe from violence in the workplace and that those procedures are not only implemented, but are routinely practiced. 

Training of both management and staff should be given, and threats of potential violence should not be ignored.  Insurance underwriters should also inquire as to potential insureds’ history of workplace violence as well as the methods and strategies employed by potential insureds to provide for and maintain safe work environments.