Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress

Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress

Employees May Have Recourse Against Their Employers for Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress

The Illinois Workers' Compensation Act ("IWCA") is the exclusive remedy in Illinois for accidental injuries arising out of and in the course of one's employment. An employee is barred from bringing a common law cause of action against his employer unless he can prove that one of the following is true:

1. The injury was not accidental;

2. The injury did not arise from his employment;

3. The injury was not received during the course of his employment; or

4. The injury is not compensable under the IWCA.

Generally speaking, injuries inflicted intentionally on an employee by a co-worker are "accidental" for purposes of the IWCA because such injuries are unexpected and unforeseeable from both the injured employee's point of view and from the employer's point of view. However, an exception exists when the employer "committed, commanded, or expressly authorized" the co-worker's tortuous conduct against the employee. McPherson v. City of Waukegan, 379 F.3d 430, 443 (7th Cir. 2004). In such cases, an employee's remedy would not be limited to the IWCA; rather, he could sue his employer under the common law for the injury.

The district court for the Northern District of Illinois recently confronted the exception in O'Connell v. Continental Elec. Const. Co., No. 11 C 2291, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 119921 (Oct. 17, 2011). O'Connell sued his former employer for intentional infliction of emotional distress based on conduct by his former supervisor. According to O'Connell, he told his employer that he had undergone surgery to remove a malignant testicle and a malignant tumor from his neck. The surgery left him with a visible scar on his throat. Thereafter, O'Connell's supervisor began mocking him by calling him "uni-ball" and "cut throat." He often asked O'Connell if he had an "Italian neck tie" or if he was giving customers a "cut throat price." This ridicule so aggravated O'Connell's anxiety and depression that he began keeping anti-anxiety medication in his desk drawer at work. The supervisor knew about the medication and removed it on occasion. O'Connell alleged that he complained to the company about his manager's behavior and the effect it had on his mental health. However, the company took no corrective action against the manager; rather, it fired O'Connell.

The district court held that summary judgment in the company's favor would be improper based on a Seventh Circuit case called McPherson v. City of Waukegan, 379 F.3d 430 (7th Cir. 2004). In that case, the Seventh Circuit favorably cited the district court's decision in Thomas v. Habitat Co., 213 F. Supp. 2d 887, 892 (N.D. Ill. 2002) for the proposition that "management's knowledge coupled with lack of follow-up action is equivalent to express authorization of injurious conduct." Based on these cases, the district court found that O'Connell's injury was not accidental, and his claims against the company were not preempted by the Illinois Workers' Compensation Act. Therefore, employees may be able to bring common law claims against their employers if they complained to management about the injurious conduct of co-workers, but management failed to take corrective action.

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