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Dead worker's estate can't sue employer for false imprisonment

Posted On: Jul. 27, 2015 12:00 AM CST

The estate of a woman who suffered a heart attack on the job and died can't sue her employer for false imprisonment and intentional infliction of emotional distress, the Mississippi Supreme Court has ruled.

As an employee of The Service Cos. Inc., doing business as FSS, Mautrice Vaughn performed housekeeping services at the MGM-owned Gold Strike Casino Resort in Robinsonville, Mississippi, according to court records. Ms. Vaughn died at the hospital from a heart attack she suffered at work on May 28, 2010, records show.

The events leading up to her death are contested. Her supervisor, Doreen Gholam, and FSS said Ms. Vaughn went to Ms. Gholam's office around 8 a.m. to give her a doctor's note excusing Ms. Vaughn's previous absence from work, records show. Ms. Vaughn didn't appear to be in discomfort, Ms. Gholam said, and when she asked if everything was OK, Ms. Vaughn said she was “just getting old” and returned to work, according to records.

However, Ms. Vaughn's sisters, Michelle and Brenda, said that when she called them around 11 a.m., she said she told her supervisor around 7:30 a.m. that she was having severe chest pains but she wasn't allowed to leave work, records show. According to the sisters, Ms. Vaughn said leaving early would result in her getting “double points” under the system FSS used to track workers who were tardy, absent or left early, and that she believed she would lose her job if she left, records show.

Brenda said Ms. Vaughn asked her sisters to pick her up from work, adding that they stopped on their way to pick up their aunt, Linda, according to records. But at 11:35 a.m., they received a call that Ms. Vaughn was found unconscious and not breathing, records show. The sisters and their aunt were told she was transported to a nearby hospital but by the time they got there, she had died.

Ms. Vaughn's estate and wrongful-death beneficiaries filed suit in April 2011 in Tunica County Circuit Court in Tunica, Mississippi, against FSS and Gold Strike for false imprisonment and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

They alleged that their sister's employer “intentionally acted to impose a confinement upon (her) against her will,” records show.

FSS moved for dismissal in July 2011, according to records. In its motion, it argued that the Mississippi Workers' Compensation Act provided the exclusive remedy against an employer.

Without explanation, the circuit court entered an order denying FSS' motion, records show. In September 2013, FSS and Gold Strike moved for summary judgment.

While the plaintiff's claims against Gold Strike were eventually withdrawn, FSS argued there was no evidence of actual intent to injure Ms. Vaughn, which is an “essential element to the false imprisonment claim and its corresponding claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress,” records show.

On Jan. 16, 2014, Tunica County Circuit Court denied summary judgment to FSS, which appealed to the Mississippi Supreme Court.

On Thursday, the state's high court reversed the circuit court's ruling and rendered a judgment in favor of FSS, finding that the false imprisonment claim is insufficient since the plaintiffs didn't produce evidence of the employer's intent to detain Ms. Vaughn.

“None of the parties has alleged Gholam or FSS would have fired Vaughn, and the plaintiffs' counsel has not sufficiently evidenced, through case law or otherwise, that such an action would amount to willful detention in any event,” the ruling states.