Generally speaking, a person who is assaulted at work to receive workers’ compensation benefits must show that the assault is related to the employment relationship and not from a purely personal relationship. If the assault arises out of a clearly personal dispute, the injured employee may be barred from obtaining workers’ compensation benefits. The injured party may, however, be able to pursue a common law negligence claim against the co-worker who perpetuated the assault.

In a recent case, Lesley Joseph v. Monmouth County, Mr. Joseph appealed a workers’ compensation Judge’s decision to dismiss his claim after he was assaulted by another employee at work. The Judge found that the assault lacked any connection to the workers’ employment, as it arose out of the worker’s involvement with the other employee’s pyramid investment scheme. The injured worker appealed arguing that the fact that the assault happened in the workplace was enough to make it arise “out of and in the course of” employment.

The facts of the case were not disputed. Mr. Joseph worked as a nursing supervisor on the overnight shift. The co-worker who assaulted him was his nursing assistant who worked under him for 5 years. The two never had any prior problems at work nor did they socialize outside of work.

Prior to the assault Mr. Joseph became involved in the co-worker’s pyramid scheme. The scheme involved all participants putting a sum of money into a “pot” and then they took turns sharing the money collected. For example if 20 employees contributed one hundred dollars into the pot, then over the course of 20 pay periods each employee would take turns collecting $2000 during their assigned week. In May 2011 the co-worker had a big wedding and several co-workers became concerned because they stopped receiving money from the “pot.”

Then on June 9, 2011, Mr. Joseph went to his co-worker to discuss what he needed her to do during the shift. He then continued to ask her about the money in the “pot” and ask why no one had been paid recently. Mr. Joseph was especially concerned because he was the next one in line to receive money from the “pot.” The co-worker told Mr. Joseph she had used some of the money, but that he should not worry, he would be paid. Nothing else was said. About two hours later, as Mr. Joseph was taking his break in the break room, his co-worker entered the room and attacked him with a hammer. The co-worker later pled guilty to aggravated assault.

After considering the evidence the Judge found that the accident did not “arise out of and in the course of employment,” and stated that the injury was solely due to Mr. Joseph’s involvement in the non-work related pyramid scheme. Therefore workers’ compensation benefits were denied by the trial Judge, who dismissed the claim and found in favor of the employer.

On appeal, the Appellate Division stated that they agreed with the trial Judge, and that “the mere fact that petitioner’s injuries were sustained at work as the result of another employee’s conduct does not satisfy the requirements of the act.” In this case Mr. Joseph’s injuries were personally motivated and had no connection to his employment, thus he was not entitled to workers’ compensation benefits. The court stated that had Mr. Joseph NOT been a participant in the pyramid scheme, and still been attacked in the same manner by the co-worker, he would have been entitled to workers’ compensation benefits.