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On Mysterious Deaths

What happens when a man is murdered on the job, but no one (except, perhaps, the at-large murderer) knows the motive for the slaying?  Enrique Vicente Rincon, deceased, was working in a liquor store when a hooded man walked in and shot him.  The gunshot wound resulted in Mr. Rincon’s death and the hooded gunman escaped.

The widow filed a claim for death benefits (Rincon v. South Bay Liquor & Market), and the defendant elected to put the issue of Arising Out of Employment/Course of Employment on trial.

The defense conceded COE, recognizing that the death causing injury occurred while Mr. Rincon was on the job.  But what was the motive for the murder?  If it was a personal vendetta against Mr. Vincent, then it can hardly be AOE – an ex-girlfriend, a driver cut off the day before, an angry neighbor in the final stage of the Hatfield – McCoy feud.  None of these have to do with the job, and should not be compensable (also known as the “personal risk” doctrine).

The investigating police officers could only speculate – it could have been a gang initiation, or a robbery in which the robber lost his nerve (explained by the fact that no money was taken during the crime).  There was really no way to know, unless the murderer was caught, or at least identified.

The Workers’ Compensation Judge applied the “mysterious circumstances” doctrine, holding that, because the motive for the murder was unknown, the death must be presumed to satisfy both the AOE and the COE requirements for finding the injury compensable.

The Workers Compensation Appeals Board adopted and incorporated the WCJ’s opinion.

Sometimes, nothing can be done – the facts aren’t there or there is no way to get them.  But in cases like these, the employer needs to do an even better job investigating the case than the police.

Who had a motive to kill the employee?  Facebook, e-mails, cell phone logs (and texts) should all be subpoenaed.  The only real restraint on the thoroughness of the investigation should be the cost (with no medical treatment and statutory caps on recovery, the limits are easy to see).

Mr. Rincon is the tragic victim of a terrible murder.  Unfortunately, the employer was victimized by California’s Workers’ Compensation system as well.

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  1. February 17, 2012 at 8:14 am

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