In a case with a bizarre fact pattern, an Alabama appellate court affirmed an award of workers’ compensation death benefits to the surviving spouse of an accountant who was stalked and then shot to death because her assailant blamed the accountant for tax problems in his business [Lawler & Cole CPAs, LLC v. Cole, 2018 Ala. Civ. App. LEXIS 115 (July 13, 2018)]. Construing Ala. Code § 25-5-1(9) and relevant case law, the appellate court agreed that the murder, although an intentional act on the part of the murderer, amounted to an accidental injury (death) arising out of the employment.
A surviving spouse sought workers’ compensation death benefits in connection with the fatal shooting of his wife, Linda Cole, that took place at her place of employment. Cole, an accountant in a CPA firm, was shot and killed by Dale Cooper, a disgruntled (and very possibly mentally deranged) former client. One year before the fatal incident, Cooper’s former business partner, Donny Miller, had warned one of the CPA firm’s partners that Cooper blamed Cole for tax fines, penalties, and other tax-related issues, saying “Y’all need to be careful.”
On the day of the incident, Cooper first went to the office of a local attorney, whom Cooper held at gunpoint to coerce the attorney into telephoning Miller and requesting, under false pretenses, that Miller come down immediately to the attorney’s office. While waiting for Miller to arrive, Cooper told the attorney in detail why he blamed Cole for his difficulties. Cooper shot Miller as he arrived and attempted to shoot the attorney, but the gun jammed. Cooper then apparently went to the office of his current accountant, but was unsuccessful in gaining entry into the office. Cooper thereafter entered the offices of the CPA firm (Cole’s employer), found Cole, and fatally shot her three times.
Was this an “Accident?”
The CPA firm defended the death benefits claim on the basis that the shooting death was not caused by an accident arising out of the employment. Construing Ala. Code § 25-5-1(9), the appellate court acknowledged that an intentional assault did not arise out of the employment if it was committed because of reasons personal to the employee and not because of his or her status as an employee or because of his or her employment.
The court noted that the undisputed evidence showed, however, that Cooper intentionally assaulted and killed Cole not out of any personal ill will, but solely because of their working relationship. Cooper apparently blamed Cole, as well as his former business partner, Miller, his accountant at the time of the shooting, and other professionals, for his tax problems and financial difficulties. Immediately before opening fire on Cole, Cooper unmistakably expressed his intent to kill Cole because she had “f-‘d up [his] taxes.” The record contained no evidence of any other possible motivation for the assault.
The appellate court rejected the CPA firm’s contention that the assault should be considered as a purely personal attack because of the long passage of time since the professional relationship between Cooper and Cole ended; nearly a decade passed before Cooper stalked and killed Cole. The court said the record was vague as to what transpired during that period, it was clear on the point that Cooper had not interacted with Cole at all and that Cooper had not developed any ill will or anger toward Cole for any reasons other than his perception that she had contributed to his tax problems and financial difficulties. The court concluded that the trial court correctly found that Cole’s death was caused by an accident arising out of the employment.