Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress Claim Barred by Worker’s Compensation Claim

A plaintiff cannot bring a separate intentional infliction of emotional distress claim based on a work-related incident for which he has already pursued a workers’ compensation claim.

In Byrd v. Appalachian Electric Cooperative, No. E2017-01345-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. April 25, 2018), plaintiff alleged that an “interrogation” by his supervisors at work caused him chest pain, anxiety, and other symptoms. He averred that when he reported to work one morning, he was called to a meeting with two supervisors, who questioned him about his recent marriage to another employee’s relative. He stated that he was told he would have to either resign or be terminated per company policy, and that the meeting lasted three hours. At the end of the meeting, plaintiff alleged that one of the supervisor’s spoke with an attorney, who reviewed company policy and determined that there had been no policy violation, at which time plaintiff was allowed to return to work.

Plaintiff filed a workers’ compensation claim based on this incident for the injuries he allegedly suffered from the meeting. He also filed this civil claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress. The trial court dismissed his claim based on his already pending workers’ compensation claim, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

The Tennessee Supreme Court has stated that workers’ compensation is “the exclusive remedy for an employee who is injured during the course and scope of his employment, meaning the employee is precluded from seeking tort damages for the injury.” (citation omitted). There is a very narrow exception to this, which only applies when the “employer acted with ‘actual intent’ to injure the employee.” (citation omitted). The standard for showing “actual intent” is high:

Even if the alleged conduct goes beyond aggravated negligence, and includes such elements as knowingly permitting a hazardous work condition to exist, knowingly ordering claimant to perform an extremely dangerous job, willfully and unlawfully violating a safety statute, this still falls short of the kind of actual intention to injure that robs the injury of accidental character.

(citation omitted).

In this case, plaintiff did not allege that defendant’s agents “actually intended that he be injured by their actions.” The Court found that, even according to plaintiff’s own allegations, defendant’s agents’ actions “were related to an alleged violation of company policy, establishing that the agents possessed a business- or job-related justification for their actions. As such, it would be inappropriate to infer actual intent to injure in this situation.” Accordingly, this case did not fit within the narrow exclusion of actual intent, and workers’ compensation was plaintiff’s only available remedy. Dismissal of his complaint for intentional infliction of emotional distress was therefore affirmed.

Although this plaintiff was proceeding pro se, this case is a reminder that it’s almost impossible to make a separate tort claim based on an incident covered by workers’ compensation. The “actual intent” exclusion requires a showing of intent that is extremely difficult to prove in most cases.