A long-standing tradition at Acme's flagship plant on the edge of town is the company-sponsored year-end party. It starts during lunch on each shift the Friday before the holidays. As usual, the cafeteria is decorated with the splendor one would expect at a gala lunchroom event in a heavy manufacturing environment.
Other than the employee picnic in June, this is the only Acme event that's totally free of charge to employees. Attendance isn't mandatory, but for those who don't skip out early, the tables are loaded with food worthy of a soiree at the big ritzy hotel downtown. Coco Vaughn Catering Associates is at the Acme plant for three shifts, filling the tables with hot and cold hors d'oeuvres, exotic salads, rich pastas, sauteed vegetables and everything else one could need to build a fine holiday meal.
At several locations around the room, servers are carving goose, beef tenderloin and ham for the generously large and excellent Acme-style sandwiches for the carnivores on the staff. The overflowing desert tables are always a hit with the chocoholics and others who enjoy the pleasures of an overactive sweet tooth. Because the event takes place on company property, however, Acme's president, Hugh Mungis, long ago instituted a policy that forbids alcohol at any event the company sponsors. Instead, thirsty people find gallons of eggnog, soft drinks and designer waters, dozens of plain and flavored coffees, as well as a variety of exotic teas in abundance throughout the room.
Pete Sahpai and the Colas, an outstanding local six-piece band ensconced in one corner of the room, is alternating sing-along holiday carols with dance tunes and jazz standards. Several couples are taking advantage of the opportunity to showcase their rug-cutting skills, while quite a few more are waiting their turn to fill the air with cacophonous joy. This year, from a purely objective point of view, the event, even considering the Acme tradition, is clearly "over the top."
"It's never been better," opined Jimmy Jonga, Acme's maintenance foreman, as he sat at the table with his plant buddies to eat a plate filled with grilled shrimp, slices of prosciutto and a large chunk of Stilton cheese he just fetched for himself.
"You can say that again, Jimmy," replied Terry Missioux, a master machinist, as he chowed down on his third plate of pre-lunch desserts. "Hey, Ole, what's with drinking water? Aren't you going to eat anything?"
"I'm just very thirsty, Terry," replied Ole Andure, Acme's ace tool and die maker. "And I've been feeling tired ever since I walked in the door. Maybe it's the stress of the season. I don't know."
A few minutes later, Herb Altey, a millwright, placed his plate of food, soup bowl and soda bottle on the table and sat down. "Did you guys try that clam chowder yet? It's awesome."
"That's a great idea, Ole," blurted Jimmy. "If you're not going to eat, at least get some soup. It'll cure what ails you. Come on, I think I'll get some, too."
"I'm game," murmured Ole, "When Acme's footing the bill, nobody's going to call me a party pooper." With that comment, Ole and Jimmy rose and threaded their way through the tables to the food servers across the room.
When they returned, Ole's plates were stacked atop each other, each piled high, and he had a water bottle in each front pocket of his pants. "You're the sick guy, right?" mocked Terry.
"If I'm going to do this, I'm walking through that crowd only once, and that was it," replied Ole, sitting down and spreading his napkin to start the feast he gathered for himself. "I'll feel a lot more awake after I stoke the boiler," he said as he patted his potbelly.
"Just make sure you leave enough for the rest of us. And the folks on the next shift," jibed Herb.
"Oh, give me a break, will you, Herb," pleaded Ole. But his buddies' gentle ribbing went on for the 20 minutes it took Ole to clear his plates, finish his soup and down both bottles of water.
Terry left, returned shortly with a full carafe of coffee and poured a cup for everyone at the table. The conversation drifted to ice fishing and other outdoor activities suitable for the time of year. While they talked and joked around, Ole was again subdued.
As his abdominal pain increased, Ole said, "Boys, you're going to have to excuse me. I think my stomach is going to stage a major revolt." With that, Ole rose and headed for the bathroom. When he returned, he was breathless and announced that he left his insulin kit at home. "I've got to go now," he panted. "I'll see you tomorrow," he said as he left the lunchroom and headed for home.
A few hours later, the local hospital called Corey, Ole's wife, to tell her that her husband passed out while he was waiting for a red light. The car slowly drifted into the intersection and was sideswiped by a passing truck. The voice on the phone told Corey that Ole was in bad shape, but stable, and she should come to the hospital immediately.
A few months later, Corey, now a widow, filed suit against Acme, arguing that the company had acted negligently in letting her sick husband leave the building and drive home alone.
What would you have done differently? Should a company have a policy regarding sick employees? Is the health of employees even a management concern? Does this lawsuit have any merit?
A corporate consultant says:
This is ridiculous. Acme is an employernot a parent. If this suit is valid, here are the actions companies would have to take to avoid similar litigation.
First, companies would have to violate the privacy of every employee to uncover any and all physical problems. Next, several doctors would have to be on the payroll to advise on the various treatments and prevention strategies for each person. Then, employees would have to be educated as to the proper first aid for each medical condition of each associate who has a medical problem.
Acme didn't need to do anything differently. Ole's deliberate, self-destructive behavior is not Acme's responsibility.
Dalton Alliances, Inc.
An academician says:
Having a company policy that requires all illness or injury be reported to human resources or the company medical unit (if they have one) makes a lot of sense for the protection of both the employee and Acme. If used, this would allow someone in an official capacity to determine the extent of the illness and what action is required. This would assist in the delivery of appropriate care to the employee, and also would help Acme avoid suits such as the one filed in this case.
Ole apparently was feeling tired several hours prior to the event. Whatever he ate at the event obviously did not improve his condition, and may have made it worse. However, the event itself was not mandatoryOle could have skipped the event and headed home. Furthermore, one could assume that Ole was aware of what he could and could not eat, and if he did eat the wrong food at the party it is because he chose to. So, it is difficult to see how Acme is negligent, at least for this part of the scenario.
But Corey's suit seems to not to rest on the event and what Ole ate, but rather that the company was aware of his illness and allowed Ole to expose himself to danger by allowing him to drive home. The key issue then is whether Acme knew Ole was feeling ill, and whether it knew that the problem was serious enough that it could lead to serious consequences, then did nothing.
The case doesn't indicate whether Ole told anyone about his problems except for a couple of his coworkers. If they were the only people who knew about it and did not act (or did not think it serious enough to act), then is the company liable? My common sense approach says no, but I will leave this question to the attorneys.
Prof. Homer H. Johnson, Ph.D.
Loyola University Chicago
An attorney says:
This unfortunate situation could so easily have been avoided with a little common sense and human kindness. Any one of the coworkers could so easily have offered to take Ole home or call a cab for him.
However, Acme should not be legally liable for Ole's early demise. Most state workers' compensation laws provide that an employer's only liability for an employee's injury, illness or death that arises from the employment is under the workers' compensation law. In other words, an employee cannot sue an employer for a work-related injury, claiming negligence, in a civil court. All injuries and deaths arising from the employment normally are compensated based on a statutorily defined scheme setting forth the amount an employee can recover.
Most workers' compensation laws do not cover injuries or deaths that arise when an employee is going to or coming home from work and most also do not cover injuries that result from an employee's voluntary participation in a social or recreational activity. Ole's accident falls within both of these categorieshe was attending a non-mandatory social event and he was on his way home after the party when the accident occurred. As a result, it is not likely that Acme will have any liability to Ole's widow under the workers' compensation laws.
But aside from the legal issues, what about the moral and ethical ones? It seems that Ole's coworkers and his supervisor certainly were alerted that he was not feeling well and did not have his insulin with him. In all likelihood, they knew from past experience that Ole was insulin-dependent. One cannot even ascribe their thoughtlessness to alcohol intake. While an employer hardly can be expected to train its employees to extend a helping hand to their coworkers, Ole's colleagues should have been more concerned about his condition and acted on that concern by not letting him drive home alone.
Julie Badel, Partner
Epstein Becker & Green, P.C.
Our "in the Trenches" stories are created as a learning tool; the names of the companies and the people described within them are fictional.