On the season premiere of NBC’s The Office, which aired Thursday 09/23/10 at 9/8c, everyone’s attention is focused on the new office assistant, Luke Cooper (Evan Peters). Luke has alienated all his coworkers by screwing up their coffee orders and giving them disparaging nicknames like “The Big O” for Oscar (Oscar Nuñez) and “Tiny” for Kevin (Brian Baumgartner). The staff persistently pressures Michael (Steve Carell) to fire Luke, but he repeatedly refuses. Later in the episode, it is revealed that Luke is Michael’s nephew, which explains Michael’s reluctance to let him go.

            The final straw, however, is when Luke misbehaves at a staff meeting, training the laser pointer on several of his coworkers instead of directing it toward Michael’s presentation. When Luke won’t give up the laser pointer, Michael bends him over a desk and gives him a spanking. Bewildered, Luke hurls a parting expletive, and runs out. Many companies have a policy against relatives working together. We do not know if Dunder Mifflin has such a policy, but based on this fiasco, they probably should! 

            In the aftermath, Gabe (Zach Woods) tells Michael he has been advised by the legal department to characterize the incident as a “stress-induced outburst” in order to avoid a lawsuit. Gabe then “sentences” Michael to six counseling sessions with his nemesis, HR representative Toby Flenderson (Paul Lieberstein). 

            In reality, Luke would be able to bring a civil action against Michael for the tort of battery, which is defined as an intentional act that causes harmful or offensive contact with another’s person. Even if Luke did not sustain any physical injury, he could still pursue a claim for battery. He would only have to prove by a preponderance of the evidence (more probable than not) that Michael voluntarily caused contact with his person that a reasonable person would find offensive. If he proved his case, Luke would likely be entitled to nominal emotional damages in the absence of any physical injury. (For more on battery, click here). As far as the “stress-induced outburst” excuse, this is not a legally recognized defense to the tort of battery, so it would probably do nothing to head off a lawsuit. (For more on legally recognized defenses to battery, click here).

            In addition, it is likely that Dunder Mifflin, as Michael’s employer, would also be held liable for his tort under the doctrine of respondeat superior, a Latin phrase that is literally translated as “let the master answer.” As long as Michael was acting within the course and scope of his employment and his dispute with Luke arose out of a work-related matter, Dunder Mifflin would be responsible for Michael’s intentional tort. (For more on respondeat superior, click here). Since Michael was acting in his capacity as office manager during regular business hours, and the incident occured on the premises and arose out of Luke’s refusal to relinquish the laser pointer, Luke may have Dunder Mifflin on the hook as well.

            However, if Dunder Mifflin maintains Workers’ Compensation insurance coverage, like most large employers are required to do, Luke, as an employee of the company, may be precluded from bringing a tort action and instead be limited to recovery under the Workers’ Compensation plan. This compensation would typically be confined to payment of medical expenses and other costs, such as lost wages, incured as a result of the injury. (For more on Workers’ Compensation, click here). In cases involving serious injury, Workers’ Compensation insurance can serve as a cost containment mechanism, shielding employers from the risk of generous jury awards to sympathy-arousing employees. In this case, though, with low stakes and a less than charming employee, Dunder Mifflin might have been perfectly willing to go to court! In the end, justice, well at least Jersey Justice, was served, and the only question that remains is, “Will Luke Cooper return to The Office?” One can only hope.

 

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