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Laidlow revisited: the intentional wrong exception to the exclusive remedy provision of the New Jersey Workers' Compensation Act.

January 1, 2011
Joseph Calavano v. Federal Plastics Corporation., Docket No. A-0353-09T1, 2010 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 2018 (App. Div., decided August 18, 2010)

On February 20, 2006, the plaintiff was severely injured while cleaning a vertical blender on the premises of his employer. The plaintiff was a 22-year employee of the defendant and had operated the vertical blender for approximately 16 years. On the day of the accident, the plaintiff was cleaning the base of the blender with an air hose. As per the defendant’s established safety protocol, the plaintiff had turned off the machine’s power prior to cleaning. Upon noticing a piece of debris hanging from one of the blender’s blades, the plaintiff opened a small door at the base of the machine and inserted his hand to remove the debris. As he did so, the machine powered on and the lower half of the plaintiff’s arm was severed. There was some indication that a co-worker activated the power before ascertaining if the plaintiff had completed his task. The plaintiff filed a complaint against the defendant for compensatory and punitive damages, alleging intentional wrongdoing on the part of the defendant as the vertical blender on which he was injured had no interlock safety device which would have prevented it from powering on as long as the door allowing access to the blender was open. The plaintiff pointed to the installation of an interlock device on the blender within days of his accident as evidence of the defendant’s wrongdoing and knowledge of the existing risk. Section 8 of the Workers’ Compensation Act normally bars a civil action by an employee against an employer for a workplace injury, unless the employee can demonstrate that the injury is the result of intentional wrongdoing by the employer. This is the so-called “exclusivity provision” of the Act. Finding that the plaintiff failed to demonstrate that his workplace accident met the intentional wrong standard to allow him to seek damages from his employer, the court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendant. The plaintiff appealed. In affirming the lower court’s ruling, the Appellate Division relied primarily on Laidlow v. Hariton Machinery Co., 170 N.J. 602 (2002). In Laidlow, the New Jersey Supreme Court delineated a two-prong test to be utilized as an analytical guide for judges who must consider and decide summary judgment motions based on the workers’ compensation exclusivity provision. This test requires not only that the conduct of the employer be examined, but also the context of the event in question: "[T]he trial Court must make two separate inquiries. The first is whether, when viewed in a light most favorable to the employee, the evidence could lead a jury to conclude that the employer acted with knowledge that it was substantially certain that a worker would suffer injury. If that question is answered affirmatively, the trial court must then determine whether, if the employee’s allegations are proved, they constitute a simple fact of industrial life or are outside the purview of the conditions the Legislature could have intended to immunize under the Workers’ Compensation bar." The Appellate Division found that the plaintiff in the instant case could not establish either the conduct or context prong of the Laidlow rule. As to the conduct prong, the court held that: "While a reasonable jury could easily find that defendant was negligent in its duty to provide for the safety of its employees . . . and that [defendant] recognized that there was some risk that employees could be injured if they placed their hand into a vertical blender without . . . having an interlock device on the blender . . . , this Court finds that a reasonable jury could not conclude that defendant knew that there was a “substantial certainty” that the employees would be injured. [T]hus plaintiff has failed to meet the “conduct” prong of the test for overcoming the statutory immunity of defendant." Addressing the context prong, the Appellate Division held that, although regrettable, the defendant’s failure to install an interlock device before the plaintiff’s accident was not the type of circumstance which the Legislature contemplated would expose an employer to a common law negligence action rather than the workers’ compensation remedy. Here, an interlock device should have been installed prior to the plaintiff’s injury. Nevertheless, the record indicates that the plaintiff’s injury was likely caused by the Action of a co-worker who knew the safety procedures but carelessly ignored them. This is precisely the type of circumstance which is addressed by the workers’ compensation remedy as a matter of course on a daily basis. The Appellate Division concluded that the plaintiff’s injury and the circumstances surrounding it were “part and parcel of everyday industrial life” and “plainly within the legislative grant of immunity.” As such, the Appellate Division affirmed the lower court’s granting of summary judgment in favor of the defendant.

Case Law Alert - 1st Qtr 2011

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Dario J. Badalamenti
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