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ROSES ARE RED, CONTUSIONS ARE BLUE: THE COMPENSABILITY OF WORKPLACE RELATIONSHIPS GONE AWRY

By: Faith Searles, Associate, Tampa

One of the most familiar themes in our modern culture is the workplace romance. Whether it’s couples on popular TV show like The Office’s Jim Halpert & Pam Beesly, Grey’s Anatomy’s Meredith Grey & Dr. McDreamy, or even way, way back with Sam Malone & Diane Chambers on Cheer’s, it is a well worn motif. Many blockbuster movies have played off our fascination with this theme as well. Two Weeks Notice, The Proposal (apparently we also love Sandra Bullock), Jerry Maguire, and the classic Carey Grant film, His Girl Friday, are all textbook examples of this notion. This is not by accident. Popular music and literature are also rife with the notion. Even our language has incorporated the theme into a number of common expressions. Ever hear the adages, “don’t dip your nib in the office ink” or “never fish off the company pier”? In fact, just consider 22% of married couples in the U.S. met at work. Not to take the romance out of it but the reason these relationships are so prevalent is simple, they arise from opportuneness. These are relationships born of proximity. Unfortunately, not every one turns out like the plot of a rom-com and this same close proximity in the workplace can cause perilous results when office romance goes wrong. 

In order to prove compensability of injuries sustained during assaults resulting from personal animosity, the claimant must establish three facts, the last of which is more nuanced than the others and will be more closely examined. First, the workplace cannot merely be the fortuitous site of the altercation. San Marco Co. v. Langford, 391 So. 2d 326, 327 (Fla. 1st DCA 1980). In other words, if the altercation leading to the injuries occurred at the workplace merely by chance, the injuries are not compensable.  Second, that he or she was not the initial aggressor.  W. T. Edwards Hospital v. Rakestraw, 114 So.2d 802, 803 (Fla. 1st DCA 1959). This factor is relatively straightforward. Finally, he or she must show that the animosity between the assailant and the claimant was either created by, or increased as a result the workplace. San Marco Co., 391 So. 2d at 327.

To illustrate the first and third points we will look at a case that while not involving romantic relationships, still center on personal relationship that develop at the workplace. In San Marco Co. v. Langford, the claimant and a co-worker got into an argument about him owing the co-worker money for rent. 391 So. 2d 326, 326 (Fla. 1st DCA 1980). The following day, the co-worker came to the workplace with the shotgun and shot the claimant as he attempted to flee. Id.  The court ruled that these injuries were not compensable because the workplace was merely the fortuitous site of an incident involving a purely personal dispute. Id. at 327. Here, the assault was not compensable because it was inevitable in light of the unpaid rent and only occurred at the workplace because that’s where the assailant chose to commit the crime. The animosity between the two had nothing to do with the employment and therefore did not “arise out of” the employment. The employment did not create or increase the animosity between the two co-workers; rather, their status as roommates did. See also, Ivy H. Smith Company v. Wingo, 404 So. 2d 1118, 1119 (Fla. 1st DCA 1981).

In Carnegie v. Pan American Linen, two co-workers met on the job and began a romantic relationship. 476 So. 2d 311, 312 (Fla. 1st DCA 1985). After the romance ended, the pair had no contact for a month. As fate would have it, the claimant eventually showed up for a shift for which his scorned lover was also scheduled and a confrontation ensued over the termination of the relationship. The female co-worker armed herself with one of several knives available on the premises. The co-worker’s sister, who was also employed there, participated in the altercation to some extent, and a company foreman entered the struggle in an attempt to quell the disturbance. During the course of the altercation claimant sustained a knife wound.  The JCC initially denied compensability because the altercation was the result of “purely personal” reasons. Id. The First DCA reversed the decision and stated that the workplace was not merely the fortuitous location of the assault, focusing heavily on the facts their relationship originated at work and the knife used during the assault was also a product of the employment. Id.

Similarly, Tampa Maid Seafood Products v. Porter involves a love triangle that originated in the workplace. 415 So. 2d 883, 884 (Fla. 1st DCA 1982).  An altercation took place between two female co-workers who were involved with the same male colleague. It was sparked by one of the women discovering a group of co-workers gossiping about the situation and it resulted in multiple stab wounds. Id. The women “had no other personal relationship outside their work together, and all three initially met through their employment.” Id. The weapon of choice, possibly much like the relationships themselves, was one of convenience, a knife supplied by the facility to peel shrimp. The court ruled that these injuries were compensable because the claimant was not the initial aggressor and because animosity between the two women was created by their workplace romance. Id. at 884–85. Here, the weapon was a tool secondary to the employment.

Contrast the Tampa Maid Seafood Products decision above with Restoration Tech. v. Reyes, and you will note these cases are fact specific and a full investigation is necessary. 936 So. 2d 1187, 936 So. 2d 1187 (2006). In Restoration Tech. v. Reyes, two co-workers fought over an extension cord and injuries were sustained but claimant later also punched a steel table out of anger while discussing the matter with his supervisor. The JCC deemed the all injuries compensable, finding the claimant’s injuries were not “willfully inflicted, even if he punched an object in anger, because he was not the aggressor in the argument.” Id. at 1189. The First DCA affirmed the compensability of the first set of injuries but reversed as to the latter fracture of the finger finding “[p]unching a hard object, even though impulsive, was so serious and so likely to result in real injury that it was construed to show willful intent.” Id. at 1190.

In light of the foregoing, it is clear that that heartbreak is not the only injury that can result from workplace relationships gone awry.  When investigating such claims, it is necessary to take a close look at the parties, instruments and relationships involved as these cases are decided on a case by case basis.