In North Carolina, as in virtually every other state, workers’ compensation is considered the “exclusive remedy” for employees who have suffered on-the-job injuries or related illnesses.
What this means is workers who are eligible for workers’ compensation benefits may not sue their employer in court for injuries sustained in the course of employment. There may be the potential for third-party liability lawsuits, but generally, the employer is off-limits in terms of litigation.
There is, our Charlotte workers’ compensation lawyers know, a limited exception. It started with the 1992 North Carolina Supreme Court decision in Woodson v. Rowland. There, justices decided employees (or their personal representatives) could sue their employer in civil court when an employer engages in misconduct knowing it is substantially certain to cause serious injury or death to employees.
However, even this provision only allows for a single remedy, meaning the employee will have to choose one or the other. The “substantially certain” threshold tends to be a high one, though it is possible to meet in some unique circumstances. In the Woodson case, a worker was killed in a trench cave-in after a supervisor refused to secure proper safety equipment for the workers, even after being warned of a serious violation by another foreman. The state supreme court reasoned this kind of action was tantamount to an intentional tort. Under state law, workers can sue co-workers for intentional torts resulting in injury.
However, these exceptions are difficult to obtain, as illustrated recently in the case of LeFiell Mfg. v. Super. Ct., before the California Court of Appeal, Second Appellate District, Division Three. (Similar to the law in North Carolina, California courts have held workers must adhere to the exclusive remedy of workers’ compensation for work-related ailments, unless there has been an intentional tort, or a few other exceptions.)
In this case, a worker suffered serious injury while operating a swaging (die-cutting) machine in the course of his employment. The worker filed a complaint alleging a violation of state labor code that allows workers to pursue civil action against an employer. In this instance, the door on the machine in use at the time of the accident had been removed. The purpose of the door is to hold the die in place while the power press is in place, and also to allow access to change the dies when necessary. In place of the door, there was a metal pressure plate on the machine, held in place by clamps.
The worker was standing about six feet away from the machine, removing a tube, when a piece of metal struck him in the eye, launching into his occipital lobe.
The worker filed a civil lawsuit against his employer under the workers’ compensation exception. A portion of state labor code allows for an exception to workers’ compensation exclusivity where the employer knowingly removed or knowingly failed to install a point of operation guard on a power press, recognizing that this could cause serious injury or death.
The company responded with a motion for summary judgment, arguing the door was not a barrier point of operation guard.
Expert witnesses testified for either side, with the trial court in the end denying the motion for summary judgment. However,that ruling was later overturned by the state supreme court, which in adopting a narrow definition, found the door did not serve as a “point of operation guard” to keep the workers’ hands out of the area where they might suffer a crush injury.
If you have been injured at work in Charlotte, contact the Lee Law Offices at 800-887-1965.
LeFiell Mfg. v. Super. Ct., Aug. 6, 2014, California Court of Appeal, Second Appellate District, Divisio hree
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