A woman filed a claim of negligent infliction of emotional distress—not for the harassment that she maintained her supervisor subjected her to but for her former employer’s alleged mishandling of her complaint.
Emotional Distress Claim: What happened
“Carmella” started working for The Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company as an area manager in 2007. During her employment, she complained to the appropriate personnel about her male supervisor’s obnoxious and rude behavior toward her. His harassment was verbal and intimidating, but there was no physical contact or any sexual harassment. Despite her complaints, the supervisor remained in his position and continued to harass her. Eventually, Goodyear terminated Carmella’s employment.
She filed a complaint, claiming (1) wrongful discharge, (2) violation of the Retaliatory Employment Discrimination Act (REDA), (3) tortious interference with contractual rights, (4) intentional infliction of emotional distress, and (5) negligent infliction of emotional distress (NIED). Carmella voluntarily dismissed the REDA claim, and the trial court dismissed the third and fourth claims, leaving only the wrongful discharge and NIED claims.
Carmella maintained that Goodyear’s negligent handling of her harassment complaint caused her emotional distress and eventually led to her wrongful discharge.
The jury awarded her $450,000 solely for the “severe emotional distress” caused by her former employer’s negligence—not for her wrongful discharge. Goodyear appealed, maintaining that the trial court lacked jurisdiction in this case. Specifically, Goodyear argued that the North Carolina Industrial Commission has exclusive jurisdiction over an NIED claim caused by an employer’s “willful and wanton negligence.”
What the court said
The appeals court agreed with Goodyear and vacated the trial court’s judgment.
The court said Carmella’s claim would fall outside the exclusive jurisdiction of the Industrial Commission under only two circumstances: (1) if an exception to the exclusivity provisions applies or (2) if her NIED claim was not covered by the Workers’ Compensation Act. The court concluded that the exception to the exclusivity provisions does not apply in this case and that her NIED claim was, in fact, covered by the Workers’ Compensation Act.
The court noted that mental injuries have long been recognized as compensable under North Carolina law. “ … [O]ur courts have recognized the compensability of mental injuries under tort law since the late nineteenth century. Furthermore, mental conditions have been acknowledged and compensated as occupational diseases under our Workers’ Compensation Act.”
Citing another case, the court said, “In order for an injury to be compensable under the Workers’ Compensation Act, a claimant must prove (1) that the injury was caused by an accident; (2) that the injury arose out of the employment; and (3) that the injury was sustained in the course of employment.”
The court said Carmella met all three of those requirements. As a result, her “NIED claim caused by … [Goodyear’s] mishandling of her complaint would fall within the purview of the Industrial Commission as her emotional distress is an ‘injury’ recognized by the Workers’ Compensation Act.”
Carmella’s mental injury was caused by an accident, since Goodyear’s “mishandling of her complaint was ‘an unlooked for and untoward event which is not expected or designed by the injured employee,’” the court said, citing another case.
The court also concluded that her “‘injury arose out of the employment’ in that complaining to an employer about harassment at work and the risk that the employer may not handle it properly ‘is a natural and probable consequence or incident of the employment and a natural result of one of its risks, so that there is some causal relation between the injury and the performance of some service of the employment.’” The court also said Carmella’s “injury was sustained in the course of employment.” Shaw v. The Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., North Carolina Court of Appeals, No. 09 CVS 11872 (1/15/13).
Point to remember: Employers should promptly and thoroughly investigate complaints of harassment and, when necessary, take steps to stop supervisors from engaging in such behavior.
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Source: Joan S. Farrell, Mishandling of harassment complaint leads to emotional distress claim, HR.BLR.com, Feb. 27, 2013, at hr.blr.com/HR-news/Performance-Termination/Workplace-Complaints-and-Investigations/Mishandling-of-harassment-complaint-leads-to-emoti/
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