Kentucky: Convenience Store Worker’s Access to Premises and Security Codes Provides Causal Link Between His Murder and the Employment

The Court of Appeals of Kentucky recently affirmed an award of death benefits to the administratrix of the estate of a deceased convenience store worker (“Pendleton”) who was found after business hours in the store’s bathroom [see JJ’s Smoke Shop, Inc. v. Walker, 2013 Ky. App. LEXIS 22 (Feb. 1, 2013)]. He had been stabbed sixty-eight times. The ALJ found that the Estate had provided prima facie evidence that Pendleton was murdered in the course and scope of his employment. Accordingly, the ALJ applied the presumption set forth in KRS 342.680, which creates a rebuttable presumption of causation in instances where a worker is incapable of explaining how a workplace injury occurred.  

The subsequent murder investigation indicated that on the night he was killed, Pendleton closed the store at 8:30 p.m., locked up, set the burglar alarm, and went home, and that Pendleton was later picked up at his home by “the Marra brothers” under the pretext of driving to an undisclosed location to purchase drugs. Other evidence tended to show that prior to the arrival of the Marra brothers at Pendleton’s residence, one of the brothers indicated he had left his wallet in the store earlier in the day. They drove to the convenience store to get the wallet. When Pendleton turned off the alarm and opened the door, he was tasered with an electric stun gun and held hostage at knife point. Hoping that he’d be let go if he cooperated, Pendleton disabled the alarm and entered the code to open the safe. The Marra brothers then robbed the store, murdered Pendleton, and fled the scene. Pendleton’s body was found when the store owner and others went to investigate the premises after the alarm company called the store owner and indicated the alarm had been disabled. After their arrest the next day, the Marra brothers confessed to the murder and robbery.

In an attempt to rebut the presumption of compensability, JJ’s presented the theory that Pendleton was murdered due to jealousy related to a relationship Pendleton may have had with a girlfriend of one of the Marra brothers. The appellate court agreed with the ALJ that the “theory” was mere speculation and that the ALJ’s findings were sufficient to support the award.

The court indicated that In Kentucky, compensation will be granted for injuries when they are fairly traceable to an incident of the employment, and will be denied where they are the result of personal grievances not connected in any way with the employment [Henry Vogt Mach. Co. v. Chamberlain, 279 S.W.2d 224, 226 (Ky. 1955)]. According to the court, the evidence supported a finding that because of Pendleton’s employment and access to the security system at JJ’s, the Marra brothers lured him into their car under the pretext of purchasing drugs, forced him to disable the alarm and open the store doors and safe, and then murdered him on his work premises. This evidence was sufficient to establish a causal connection between Pendleton’s employment and his death.

JJ’s also argued that Pendleton violated specific orders from his employer never to return to the store after hours without first calling the store owner. JJ’s asserted that Pendleton was aware before he ever entered the Marra brothers’ car that one of the brothers wished to return to the store to retrieve his wallet and that despite such knowledge, Pendleton failed to call the owner. JJ’s contended that Pendleton’s death arose out of his intent to locate and purchase drugs and that but for his voluntary act of entering the Marra brothers’ car for this purpose he might still be alive today. JJ’s asserted that the ALJ erred by not finding that it had presented substantial evidence to rebut the presumption that Pendleton’s death was work related. The court disagreed. The record indicated that the ALJ had considered the evidence presented and found that JJ’s theories were based on innuendo and speculation, not substantial evidence, and that it failed to rebut the presumption contained in KRS 342.680.

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