Sunday, February 3, 2013

Making a Sad Situation Worse

Jacob Beneke with one of his sculptures.
Jacob Beneke, a young father, graphic designer, and sculptor, was shot to death by a coworker in Minneapolis last fall. The coworker, Andrew Engeldinger, also killed the company owner, the manager, a UPS driver, and killed or wounded several others before shooting and killing himself.

Engeldinger's family has spoken about their attempts to get him to seek mental health services because they thought he was schizophrenic, but he was an adult and refused. He cut off contact with them, but managed to keep his job at Accent Signage Systems for 12 years. At the time of the shooting, the company manager had just told him that he was fired for perpetual lateness and other disruption problems.

It was announced on Friday that Beneke's family is suing not just Engeldinger's estate (if he has one), but also Accent Signage Systems. The suit charges that Accent was grossly negligent because it should have prevented the shooting, based on Engeldinger's "past incidents of employment misconduct and his known propensity for abuse and violence."

Even if the company's owner or manager had that knowledge, which remains to be proven, this suit seems so wrong to me. Both the owner and manager are dead. Beneke's family is suing the owner's survivors, his wife and son, who are trying to keep the company running despite their grief.

There are no court or employment records that show Engeldinger had a history of making threats or committing violence before the day of the shooting. According to the Star Tribune, there were only "repeated warnings for being late to work and being verbally abrasive with colleagues."

The Beneke family lawyer, Philip Villaume, says the family has reason to believe other employees had been threatened and that Beneke feared for his safety that day. But the lawyer admitted there was no evidence of direct threats or violence.

The suit asserts that Accent should have "provided adequte security" while firing Engeldinger. Lawyer Villaumee cited the practice of hiring security guards to escort a fired employee off the premises, but had to admit that he himself had fired an employee without any security. "I didn't feel I needed it," he said.

But Accent, Villaume said, knew Engeldinger had "mental illness problems" (though he has no evidence of this knowledge) and "should have known he owned several fire arms and routinely practiced at a firing range." I'm not sure why the company should have known that.

I got the feeling from reading the end of the Strib story that there's more to all this than is being said, but even so, what's the point of filing such a suit? As another personal injury lawyer, not involved in the case, opined to the Strib, it's hard to prove gross negligence against an employer -- that it requires almost an intentional act. Knowing a coworker has symptoms of a mental illness wouldn't make me hire a guard, since I know that the mentally ill are much more likely to be victims of violence than to commit violence against others.

I'm sure it was a hard for Beneke's widow and parents to decide to sue the company. They know, or think they know, more of the truth about what happened between Engeldinger and his coworkers and managers than I do. But even so, what good does it do to sue a company barely back on its feet? Will it make them feel better if they win, possibly driving the company out of business?

I don't know what it feels like to be in their position, but I find it hard to understand their decision. I hope this isn't a case of a lawyer exploiting a family's grief for his own possible gain, going after the company's assets because the person who is to blame had nothing of monetary value.

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