Is a mentally distressed employee liable for his actions?

Longtime Maintenance Department Electrician John Culler's personality and behavior changed drastically after his wife was severely injured in a car accident. Formerly mild-mannered and easygoing, he became angry, short tempered, and sometimes hostile.
By Raymond Dreyfack January 1, 1999

Longtime Maintenance Department Electrician John Culler’s personality and behavior changed drastically after his wife was severely injured in a car accident. Formerly mild-mannered and easygoing, he became angry, short tempered, and sometimes hostile.

One day he got into an argument with Maintenance Foreman Bill Haskins over an assignment and the amount of time it would take.

“I don’t know where you dreamed up that estimate,” Cullers griped, “but it doesn’t make sense.”

Haskins tried to convince Culler it did make sense but couldn’t get him to see it his way.

Culler continued to argue the issue until Haskins became impatient.

“That’s it,” he said brusquely, “either do the job or clock out.”

One word led to another.

“You heard me,” Haskins said angrily and started to walk off. Culler grabbed him roughly by the arm, spun him around, and uttered an obscenity.

“That’s it!” the foreman snapped. “I’m giving you a 10-day suspension for insubordination and a refusal to follow instructions.”

Culler threatened to sue.

Question: In your opinion, can Haskins make the suspension stick?

Graham’s verdict: Plant Engineer Carl Graham, who knew about Mrs. Culler’s accident, tried to get the angry foreman to “cool it” when he was given the suspension notice for approval.

“Let’s consider the situation objectively,” he suggested. “Aside from this incident John Culler has a good work record. Am I right?”

“Yes. But ever since his wife’s accident, he’s been impossible to live with.”

“So I heard. But he’s going through a rough period. Has it occurred to you that the guy may need help, some professional counseling, possibly a brief leave of absence?”

Haskins frowned thoughtfully.

“Ordinarily,” Graham added, “a suspension for such behavior would be justified, but under the circumstances I feel every effort should be made to help the man out of his difficulty and hopefully restore his normal behavior. Don’t you agree?”

“Yes sir, I guess I do.”