Sheehan & Associates, P.L.C.

Michigan business sued for alleged 'prank' by supervisor

Along with the many rewarding aspects of being a Michigan business owner come numerous challenges. Among these is potential liability for the actions of your supervisory personnel. A Taylor company, Interstate Battery System, is facing a lawsuit for an alleged "prank" that one of its supervisors played on a 24-year-old employee.

According to the lawsuit, in March 2013, the plaintiff's supervisor sent him on an errand to an auto parts store. While there, he says that two men who appeared to have a gun walked in, pushed him against a wall and demanded money. For possibly as long as 15 minutes, the young man says was afraid he would be shot. The men left without even stealing his wallet, which he says contained only $1.00. The plaintiff says his boss admitted later in the day that he had been behind the "prank."

The plaintiff has also named the store, Dealer Used Auto Parts, as a defendant. However, it is reportedly no longer in business.

In the suit, which asks for damages of at least $25,000, the plaintiff says the robbery hoax caused extreme mental anguish and post-traumatic stress disorder. He reportedly tried to kill himself three times after the incident. He lost his job the following month. According to his attorney, the young man, who was already suffering from depression and anxiety, was especially "vulnerable" even before the incident.

As immature and cruel as this "prank" was, can the employers be held liable? One University of Michigan Law School professor says that the plaintiff has the burden of proving that those behind the incident meant to and did cause harm. Meanwhile, he says the defendants can claim that the plaintiff is "oversensitive."

A psychologist who heads the Workplace Bullying Institute, however, says that this case is like none he's ever heard of. "The brazenness of actually going to the effort to set that up shows a sadism of extraordinary levels," he says.

An attorney for Interstate Battery System says the company "only recently" learned of the plaintiff's allegations, but "takes them very seriously." She says, "The behavior as alleged in the lawsuit is inconsistent with our values."

Workplace bullying may be harder to define and control than illegal actions like discrimination and sexual harassment. It may also be less likely to result in litigation. However, businesses should endeavor to ensure that it is not tolerated in the workplace.

Source:  Detroit Free Press, "Workplace holdup prank ends in a $25,000 lawsuit" Robert Allen, Apr. 26, 2014

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