Almost every state with a workers’ compensation system has an exclusive remedy provision stating that workers’ compensation is the sole compensation employees can seek from their workplaces for job-related injuries or illnesses. In North Carolina, the exclusive remedy provision is strong. There is a limited exception if the employer is engaging in conduct that is substantially certain to result in death or serious bodily injury. Workers can also sue their co-workers for intentional torts.
The exceptions to the exclusive remedy are narrow. It’s usually very tough to prove such an exception is warranted. That’s why workers’ compensation attorneys will recommend, if possible, the pursuit of third-party litigation, since outside persons and companies are not bound by workers’ compensation exclusivity rules.
In the recent case of Barrett v. Hecla Mining Co., workers in Idaho sought to hold their employer accountable for injuries they suffered in a rock burst in a mine in 2011. However, the exclusive remedy provision got in the way.
According to court records, four workers brought the case after they were injured in a rock burst and alleged their employer knew the mine was not safe but knowingly put them in harm’s way by continuing to allow them to work there. A rock burst is a type of spontaneous, violent fracture that usually occurs deep in the mines.
Records indicate a rock burst occurred in November 2011 at the Lucky Friday Mine in Idaho. Soon afterward, the mining company notified the state mining safety administration, which halted all mining activities there. Assessments of damage and rehabilitation plans began. The company hired a rock mechanics doctor to evaluate the cause, assess the stability level, and help develop a safety protocol. A memorandum was prepared by that expert two weeks later, indicating another large rock burst near that site was unlikely, and the rehabilitation plan would have adequate safety measures for workers conducting repairs.
It was during the second phase of these repairs that the second rock burst occurred, and the four plaintiffs suffered serious work-related injuries.
The plaintiffs filed their personal injury lawsuit against the employer, alleging knowing, intentional, and wanton injuries. They alleged the company committed a “willful and unprovoked physical aggression” (the standard for the exception to exclusivity in Idaho) against them by sending them to work in a place that was extremely dangerous without making them aware of the dangerous conditions.
The defense filed a motion for summary judgment, saying the exclusive remedy provision of the workers’ compensation law precluded the claim.
The district court granted that motion for summary judgment. The court found that while the company’s actions supported a claim of negligence, they did not amount to an act of willful physical aggression.
The plaintiffs appealed.
The Idaho Supreme Court affirmed, finding that in order to overcome the exclusive remedy provision, the plaintiffs would need to show the company acted with a specific intent to injure the employees. The court ruled the plaintiffs had not met that threshold. In fact, the plaintiffs indicated that the employer was aware the pillar wasn’t stable, lied about the stability to employees, and then ordered employees to work, knowing there was a high likelihood that harm would result. However, they never alleged – nor did the evidence reflect support for the theory – that the company specifically intended to injure them.
The court found that while the company knew there was a possibility of harm to workers because it knew additional rock bursts could occur, there was no evidence the company had actual knowledge a rock burst would occur before repairs could be completed or while the workers were doing their jobs.
Contact the Carolina workers’ compensation lawyers at the Lee Law Offices by calling 800-887-1965.
Barrett v. Hecla Mining Co., Nov. 18, 2016, Idaho Supreme Court
More Blog Entries:
Worker Misclassification Still Problematic in North Carolina, Nov. 21, 2016, Winston-Salem Workers’ Compensation Lawyer Blog