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Q My employer operates several retail outlets across the country. A disturbing trend in our liability claims experience appears to be a marked increase in physical assault incidents. Are you aware of this trend extending on a national basis and what can we do to protect our companies from this serious exposure?

A The organization I work for also operates several hundred retail outlets on a national scale and I agree that assault-related incidents are on the increase. And, of particular concern to any employer should be those cases where the employee is a willing participant in such violent, anti-social behavior.

The serious exposure you refer to originates from various sources. For starters, insurance protection does not always apply because of the "intentional acts" and "punitive damages" exclusions. And, defense costs associated with these incidents can be a big ticket item because of the complex discovery process required to adequately manage the case. In many instances, the insurance agreement may extend to the employer but not the employee. This situation leads to further problems since defense work must be coordinated between two different law firms. Sure sounds like the beginning of a big headache, right?

A common reaction when we talk about employee-related assaults is for us to shake our heads in dismay, express our concerns about the many social ills and then prepare to wrestle with the next set of problems. However, with the number of these cases escalating and gaining national attention we simply cannot afford to treat this behavior as a sign of the times. The correct way to deal with it is by adhering to a careful employee selection process, developing and implementing continuous employee training programs that are aimed at keeping our employees focused and motivated to perform their jobs professionally. As employers, it is our responsibility to communicate to our workforce that we have a zero tolerance for violent behavior in any form.

The employee selection process should include a background check and a motor vehicle record check if employees are required to operate a vehicle as part of their job. Many employers are also utilizing a variety of aptitude tests which help identify certain "bad behaviors" before an employee is recruited. Those organizations that do not expend the effort to weed out the undesirables will pay a heavy price sometime down the road. Employee training programs should focus not only on technical abilities but include sensitivity skills that heighten our awareness of the feelings of others.

Although this sounds like basic "stuff" it is too often ignored in a culture that is driven by a desire to expand market share and increase profit margins. Remember the comment about intentional acts being excluded from general liability coverages. An employer is definitely at risk when it decides to do nothing to influence the behaviors of its workforce through the above measures.

Regarding the subject of insurance protection you should carefully read your comprehensive general liability policy and make certain that exposures for employee vs. employee incidents are covered. Also, pay particular attention to wording in the intentional acts exclusion. Yet another aspect to consider is the fact that assault claims are likely targets for media attention since the public has an insatiable appetite for stories with a "sensational" flavor. Part of your risk control strategy, therefore, should include knowing how to communicate with the press on such matters. If your company is identified as having problems with violence, its ability to survive (be profitable) could definitely be at stake. After all, "perception is everything" in today's business climate!

To wrap things up, the best means of protecting your company from being victimized by assault-related incidents is by taking an active role in the employee selection process and then offering workers the necessary tools and skills to handle every job. Investing time and energy into these processes are the best deterrent to controlling acts of violence.