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Court overrules comp rules in job murder suit

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Workers compensation exclusive remedy rules do not prevent a woman from suing her late son's employers after he was murdered at work by a coworker, a Georgia appellate court has ruled.

Nickifor Zephyrine was hired by staffing firm Staffchex Inc. to work at a warehouse owned and operated by OA Logistics Services Inc. in Pooler, Georgia, according to court filings. Staffchex also hired Christopher Lema to work at the OA warehouse, but he applied under the alias Christopher Young-Evans and a criminal background check on that name failed to show Mr. Lema's felony criminal record.

In February 2012, Mr. Zephyrine was driving a forklift that ran out of fuel, and he went to an office area at OA's warehouse to ask about refueling. A female coworker waiting inside the office told Mr. Zephyrine that he might find a supervisor if he waited outside the door, court records show.

As he waited, Mr. Lema entered the office and attempted to kiss the female coworker, according to records. After she pushed him away, Mr. Lema walked out of the office, produced a handgun, fatally shot Mr. Zephyrine in the back of the head and went back into the office to sexually assault the female employee.

Mr. Lema inexplicably passed out during his attack, and the woman was able to flee and alert other employees at the OA warehouse. Court records show that Mr. Zephyrine had not interacted with Mr. Lema prior to the attack and had not been aware of or attempted to intervene in the assault on his coworker.

Mr. Lema pleaded guilty in 2013 to murder, false imprisonment, simple battery and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, according to a statement at the time from the Chatham County, Georgia, District Attorney's office. He was sentenced to life in prison plus 10 years of probation.

Mr. Zephyrine's mother, Maria Sturgess, sued OA, Staffchex, Mr. Lema, and a John Doe who allegedly supplied Mr. Lema the gun that he used in his attack, according to filings. Ms. Sturgess alleged that OA and Staffchex negligently hired Mr. Lema, resulting in the hiring of a convicted felon and the murder of her son.

Staffchex and OA moved for summary judgment, arguing that workers comp was the exclusive remedy for Ms. Sturgess under Georgia law. A Chatham County court granted summary judgment in favor of the employers, finding that Mr. Zephyrine's death occurred arose out of and in the course of his employment. Ms. Sturgess appealed.

A three-judge panel of the Georgia Court of Appeals unanimously reversed the lower court ruling on Monday and found that Ms. Sturgess could proceed with her liability lawsuit against OA and Staffchex. The appellate court found that while Mr. Zephyrine died at work, his death did not arise out of his job duties.

“Zephyrine's work did not require him to be in a location that heightened his risk of injury or criminal attack,” the ruling reads. “Nor is there evidence that Zephyrine and Lema had any work-related dispute that escalated into violence.”

Staffchex argued in court filings that Georgia's “positional risk doctrine” should apply in Mr. Zephyrine's case, contending that his job “brought him within range of the danger by requiring his presence in the locale when ... peril struck.” But the appellate court disagreed because it said Mr. Zephyrine's job did not include any risks that inherently put him at risk of violent crime.

There “was no high-crime element to this particular workplace locale, nor was there any discernible risk of theft or robbery associated with this workplace. The risk of a random attack was no more heightened at Zephyrine's workplace than at any other place,” the ruling reads. “Therefore, based on the undisputed facts before us, the positional risk doctrine does not demonstrate that Zephyrine's death arose out of his employment at the OA warehouse.”