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Safe Harbor As if it weren't bad enough to have someone "go postal" at your workplace, you can be held liable for the injury and death.

By Steven C. Bahls

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Just after Christmas, a programmer at Edgewater Technology, anInternet consulting firm in Wakefield, Massachusetts, grabbed threeguns, strode down the hall and shot seven co-workers. Two weekslater, an angry convenience store owner in Houston showed up atAmko Trading, one of his wholesalers, and shot the couple who ownedit, their daughter and himself. All four died.

The scenario is frighteningly common. The Bureau of LaborStatistics reports more than 1,000 homicides in American workplacesoccurred from 1992 to 1996. During the same time period, accordingto the U.S. Department of Justice, 2 million American workers peryear were victimized while working. That in itself is worrisome foremployers, whether they become targets themselves or have to copewith repercussions and remorse if an employee or customer isinjured or killed. But then there's the legal side. Whenthere's violence in the workplace, employers can be held liablefor failing to screen job applicants carefully enough, failing torecognize problem employees and take action, or failing to maintainadequate security.

Consider a North Carolina case decided in May 1999. Four yearsearlier, ex-employee James Davis returned to awarehouse/manufacturing plant owned by Union Butterfield Corp. andDormer Tools Inc. and started shooting. He murdered threeem-ployees and wounded another. An Asheville County jury orderedthe companies to pay $7.9 million to the families of two of thedead employees for failing to protect the workers. Althoughemployees had told the man-agers of both companies that theythought Davis would return to murder people, the managersdetermined that he posed no significant threat and elected not tohire armed security guards for protection. After discussing thepossible danger, they decided to simply lock the front door andtell the receptionist to keep an eye out for him-but no one everrelayed even that message.

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