To many of his co-workers at the Lockheed Martin plant in Meridian, Miss., Doug Williams seemed like a ticking time bomb. He allegedly threatened co-workers, made racist taunts and brimmed with rage. What finally lit his fuse, apparently, was an ethics and sensitivity training course that he was required to take last week. Williams, 48, stormed out, grabbed a shotgun and semiautomatic from his pickup and hunted down fellow workers, killing five and injuring nine others before fatally shooting himself in the chest. One of the dead victims, Lynette McCall, had feared just such a fate, her husband told the town newspaper. "She said, 'They keep letting him come back in, but he's going to kill us'."
The Meridian tragedy raises some troubling questions not just for Lockheed, but for any company with a disturbed and angry employee in its ranks (there have been other such shootings, like the one at a millwork factory in Goshen, Ind., in 2001 that left two dead and six wounded). In Williams's case, his supervisors at Lockheed ordered him to attend a two-week anger-management course after he threatened a co-worker in 2001 and, more recently, sent him home when he donned a bootee on his head that looked like a Ku Klux Klan hood. Could Lockheed have done more? Can the victims' families hold the company liable?
Most legal experts agree that a lawsuit would face high hurdles. State workers' comp laws hold employers mostly immune from suits stemming from a worker's injury or death. An exception would be made if Lockheed, in its handling of Williams, was found to have intentionally endangered the victims. That argument succeeded in a 1999 North Carolina case in which warehouse owners failed to beef up security, despite warnings that a fired worker was likely to exact revenge killings. But Lockheed, says employment attorney D. Michael Reilly, "seemed to follow the book." That leaves workers' comp laws for victims' families, providing a maximum of $149,000 in Mississippi.
Many companies bend over backward to counsel troublesome employees. But there are times when drastic measures are required. As employment lawyer Dave Wilson says, "Would I rather defend a case of wrongful termination [or wrongful death]? I'd rather be the company that fired the guy who was threatening people." Though with Williams, that might have simply set him off sooner.