The recent North Carolina Court of Appeals decision in Blue v. Montaire Farms et al., underscores once again the fact that workers’ compensation is often the sole means of compensation following a work-related injury.
As our Winston-Salem workers’ compensation lawyers can explain, there are some situations in which injured workers may seek redress from third parties in civil court. But when we’re talking about the employer, co-workers and certain contracted companies, most often, the exclusive remedy protection is applicable.
The Blue case arises from a tragic accident at a North Carolina poultry plant just outside of Fayetteville. (Other plans for the Delaware-based firm are located outside of Charlotte, Raleigh and Winston-Salem.)
According to court records, the plant in Robeson County used anhydrous ammonia refrigeration in order to keep the temperature of its poultry at safe levels. This is done with the use of machines known as “votators,” that encapsulate this chemical.
Plaintiff was a mechanic, responsible for repair and maintenance of certain processing equipment at the plant. His co-worker was the mechanic in charge of performing maintenance on the plant’s votators.
In April 2009, the U.S. Department of Agriculture sent personnel for inspection of the plant, and as a result of that inspection, ordered the company to replace a sleeve on one of those votators. A new sleeve was ordered. After a series of discussions, during which the co-worker insisted he could do it safely, it was determined the installation of the sleeve could be done internally, rather than hiring an outside contractor.
When the sleeve arrived in June 2009, plaintiff’s co-worker was assigned to install the sleeve. No other company employees were listed in the maintenance log work order for the job. A warning manual for the sleeve indicated all refrigerant chemicals had to be removed in order to remove the heat exchanger tube.
On the day of the installation, the co-worker started on the sleeve while plaintiff was completing other work. His co-worker then called him over to help. As plaintiff entered, he saw his co-worker unscrewing the valve on the votator. The work was being supervised by a manger. Plaintiff, who knew the votator contained dangerous ammonia chemicals, shouted at his co-worker to stop. But the warning came too late.
The pressure from the partially-opened sleeve resulted in an explosion. The room filled with ammonia instantly. The co-worker was killed. Plaintiff and the supervisor were seriously injured. Plaintiff was in a coma for five months and had to undergo a double lung transplant.
Government safety agents fined the company $65,000 for safety violations relating to the incident.
Plaintiff then filed a Woodson complaint against his employer and other defendants. Although workers’ compensation is the exclusive remedy, in a Woodson claim, workers can assert a narrow exception when an employer “intentionally engages in misconduct knowing it is substantially certain to cause serious injury or death to employees” and a worker is seriously injured or killed as a result. The North Carolina Supreme court ruled that is tantamount to an intentional tort, and such actions aren’t barred by the exclusivity provision of the workers’ compensation act.
The trial court in Blue ruled the Woodson exception to workers’ compensation could apply in this case. However, the appellate court reversed the denial of defendants’ motion for summary judgment, finding Woodson did not apply here.
First, plaintiff was not assigned to assist. His co-worker was not acting in a supervisory role when he asked for his help. Thus, the defendants did not place plaintiff in danger. Further, there was not enough evidence to show that replacement of that sleeve was substantially certain to cause injury or death. In fact, the co-worker had assured company officials he could do it safely.
The fact that the workplace was unsafe or the employer knew of certain dangers before the accident, the court ruled, was not enough for a Woodson claim to prevail.
If you have been injured at work, contact the Lee Law Offices at 800-887-1965.
Blue v. Montaire Farms et al., May 17, 2016, North Carolina Court of Appeals
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