Georgia Employers Face Renewed Liability Concerns Over Guns

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By John McCoy

If an employee brings a gun to work and someone gets injured, is the employer liable? While many Georgia employers thought the relatively black and white matter was settled, a state supreme court decision may drag it back into the gray area.

The Georgia Supreme Court’s March 5 finding in Lucas v. Beckman Coulter, Inc. raises questions about firearms and workplace safety at a time when those issues are the focus of both a national conversation and congressional legislation.

For a bit of background: In 2008 the Georgia legislature enacted the Business Security and Employee Privacy Act, known as the “Bring Your Guns to Work” law. Intended to protect gun owners’ rights while insulating employers from claims, the statute prohibited employers from enforcing any policy or rule to search an employee’s private vehicle on company property. In effect, it meant that an employee with a licensed firearm in his locked vehicle wasn’t the responsibility of the company, and that the company was only liable if it both knew about the firearm and knew it would be used to commit a crime.

Beckman Coulter Inc., a biomedical lab instruments maker, relied on that statute when it was sued by a Claude Lucas. The incident in question involved Jeremy Wilson, a BCI employee who accidentally shot Lucas while on a service call at Lucas’ company, according to the court. BCI’s policy prohibited employees from taking firearms with them while on company business. Wilson nonetheless brought his firearm with him on his service call and took it inside after learning that Lucas’ parking lot had been vandalized in recent days, the state supreme court said. Wilson accidentally fired the weapon inside, injuring Lucas.

The trial and appellate court accepted BCI’s argument that Georgia’s statute limited the company’s liability. The trial court said Wilson chose to take the firearm to Lucas’ company and doing so was outside his scope of employment with BCI. The state appeals court agreed, saying BCI couldn’t be found liable under the plain menaing of the state law, because neither Wilson nor BCI engaged in criminal activity.

But Georgia’s high court disagreed. The language of the statute limits an employer’s liability under certain circumstances, the Georgia Supreme Court said.

Georgia’s “Bring Your Guns to Work” law extends immunity to employers for actions taken to comply with the law’s intent to allow employees to keep firearms in their locked vehicles free of the threat of a search or losing their job, the state’s top court said. But it doesn’t create blanket immunity from liability. The case now goes back to the state appeals court to determine if BCI is liable or not.

If the appeals court, on reconsideration, finds that the statute doesn’t insulate BCI from Wilson’s gun-related negligence, it could open up a new discussion on employer liability.

The case is Lucas v. Beckman Coulter, Inc., 2018 BL 72861, Ga., No. S17G0541, 3/5/18.

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