There is a law in Georgia that protects employers from liability in matters related to employee-owned guns. The statute, entitled Business Security and Employee Privacy Act, has been, by and large, interpreted in a cut-and-dry fashion, with a number of courts reading the law in favor of employers. But a recent state Supreme Court case could trouble that point of view, as it throws into question a whole set of assumptions about the law’s intent. The highest court in Georgia overturned an appellate court’s (and trial court’s) decision in early March, causing heads to turn in a time when gun control is a hot topic.
The Case Details
The case in question, Lucas v. Beckman Coulter, Inc., involved two men, Jeremy Wilson and Claude Lucas. Wilson, who worked for the medical supply company, Beckman Coulter Inc. (BCI), was on a job, visiting the workplace of Lucas, a lab technician at Albany Area Primary Healthcare. During the visit, Wilson decided to tote his pistol, which according to BCI policy is not permissible, and at some point, the weapon went off accidentally, wounding Lucas in the process. According to court documents, Wilson claimed that he was carrying his weapon because he heard that the parking lot had been vandalized. Following previous court decisions, the appellate court sided with BCI in its 2016 decision, arguing that the “Bring Your Guns to Work” law, as it is sometimes called, precludes liability in this case. According to the trial court, which also sided with BCI in 2015, Wilson’s decision to carry was not within the purview of BCI’s employment.
The highest court overturned those opinions, arguing that though the law provides immunity, it does so in a limited manner. In other words, the “Bring Your Guns to Work” law cannot give blanket immunity to employers in all gun-related cases. The intent of the statute must be taken into consideration. To that end, Justice Robert Benham, writing for the majority, argued that the law (specifically subsection e) was written “to exempt employers from liability that might arise by complying with the Code section’s prohibition against maintaining a policy of searching an employee’s own vehicle … on the employer’s parking lot or its prohibition against conditioning employment on an employee’s agreement not to bring firearms into the parking lot in the employee’s own vehicle, even when they are locked out of sight by an employee who possesses a weapons carry license.”
On Benham’s reading, the appellate court neglected to consider the statute’s intention, ignoring the phrase “pursuant to this Code section” in subsection e of the law, which states the following: “No employer, property owner, or property owner’s agent shall be held liable in any criminal or civil action for damages resulting from or arising out of an occurrence involving the transportation, storage, possession, or use of a firearm … pursuant to this code section” (my emphasis). By ignoring the highlighted phrase, the appellate court was able to provide immunity to BCI vis-à-vis the accidental shooting. However, as Benham noted in his opinion, the law specifically pertains to “any policy or rule that has the effect of allowing such employer or its agents to search the locked privately owned vehicles,” and since Wilson was not driving a privately-owned vehicle, it cannot be said that the law necessarily immunizes BCI from liability in this matter.
Not on BCI Property
To drive this point home even further, Benham observed that the incident didn’t even occur on company property: “This incident did not even occur on the employer’s premises, but on the premises of the employer’s customer … No support exists for the proposition that this Code section’s purpose was to immunize employers from all firearm-related tort liability.” In the end, Benham was careful to qualify his judgement in a footnote, saying that BCI “is [not] necessarily liable to Lucas, but only that the statute does not provide immunity in this case.” The case will now be revisited by the lower court in light of the high court’s ruling.
In the end, this case could force employers to take responsibility for negligent actions that occur under their watch.
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