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Court Addresses “Exclusive Remedy” Provision of Workers’ Compensation Law

In Yang v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, et. al. (April 30, 2012), the Hawaii Intermediate Court of Appeals (“ICA”) recently held that Section 386-5 of the Hawaii Revised Statutes (“HRS”) barred a plaintiff’s claims against her employer for personal injuries (i.e. stress) she allegedly suffered arising out of and in the course of her employment, which were allegedly caused by the willful acts of her co-employees acting in the course and scope of their employment.

In that case, the plaintiff – a former Abercrombie and Fitch (“A&F”) employee – was interrogated at work by security personnel about money that was missing from a wallet that a patron had lost in the store.  After the interrogation, the plaintiff was escorted out of the AF&F store. She subsequently filed a claim for, and received, workers’ compensation benefits due to “stress” she suffered as a result of the interrogation and related incidents.

The plaintiff also filed a lawsuit against A&F and the security personnel, alleging claims such as false imprisonment, defamation and invasion of privacy, among others.  A&F sought to dismiss the suit on the grounds that workers’ compensation benefits were the plaintiff’s exclusive remedy for workplace stress.  The circuit court denied A&F’s motion, and A&F filed an appeal.

On appeal, the ICA reversed the decision of the circuit court, and ruled that HRS § 386-5 barred the plaintiff’s lawsuit with regards to injuries she suffered (a) because of her employment (b) that were caused by the willful acts of the security personnel acting in the court and scope of their employment.  The ICA also made sure to clarify, however, that HRS § 386-5 did not bar all intentional torts.  Rather, the torts must be committed “because of the employee’s employment.”

Finally, the ICA noted that that HRS § 386-5 did not bar the plaintiff’s claims against the security personnel individually.

While the Yang decision did not create any new law, it certainly clarified that workers’ compensation benefits generally serve as the exclusive remedy for injuries sustained in the course of employment.  The ICA’s decision also clarified that intentional torts that are committed because of on an individual’s employment are covered by workers’ compensation (such as in the Yang instance), whereas intentional torts that are not committed because of an individual’s employment are not.

You can read a copy of the court’s decision here.  You can also view the exclusive remedy provision under HRS § 386-5 here.