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Woodson Update – Recent Cases Confirm High Standard for Plaintiffs

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  • June 04, 2004

Typically, the remedy for a worker who is injured on the job is limited to a workers’ compensation claim. In 1991, the North Carolina Supreme Court carved out an exception to this general rule, in a case named Woodson v. Rowland. The Woodson case allows employees to sue employers in court, outside of the worker’s compensation context, if the employer "intentionally engaged in misconduct knowing it was substantially certain to cause serious injury or death to employees."(1)

Since 1991, North Carolina courts have interpreted the Woodson exception very narrowly, generally denying employee claims outside of the Workers’ Compensation Act. Recent rulings continue that trend:

1. Whitaker v. Town of Scotland Neck.(2) In this case, a maintenance worker was killed when a latching mechanism on a garbage truck gave way, allowing a garbage dumpster to swing around and pin the worker against the truck. The broken latching mechanism had been reported to a supervisor. OSHA found several "serious" violations of state labor law, including failure to train employees and operation of defective garbage truck equipment.

Before deciding whether these facts met the Woodson standard, the North Carolina Supreme Court rejected the North Carolina Court of Appeals’ articulation of a six-factor test to determine whether a claim meets the Woodson standard.(3) The Supreme Court explained that the six-factor test "misapprehends the narrowness of the substantial certainty standard set forth in Woodson." The Court further explained: "The Woodson exception represents a narrow holding in a fact-specific case. ... This exception applies only in the most egregious cases of employer misconduct."

The North Carolina Supreme Court then decided this claim did not meet the Woodson standard. Unlike Woodson, (1) there was no evidence that the Town had previously been cited for multiple, significant OSHA violations; (2) none of the Town’s supervisors were present on the day of the accident to oversee the worker’s activities; and (3) the worker was not expressly instructed to work in an obviously hazardous situation. There was also no evidence that the defendants knew that the broken latching mechanism was substantially certain to fail or that serious injury or death would be substantially certain to follow. In short, the Court concluded "the facts of this case involve defective equipment and human error that amount to an accident rather than intentional misconduct."

2. Richmond v. Indelex Inc.(4) The worker in this case was killed after he slipped and fell into an unprotected rotating shaft on a press machine. His coat was caught in the spinning shaft and then tightened around the worker to the point of asphyxiating him. OSHA found several violations of state and federal labor laws, and the employer had been fined for other violations in the past. No previous OSHA citation was directed to this particular machine, however.

The court emphasized the "extremely demanding standard for plaintiffs bringing Woodson claims" and found these facts distinguishable from Woodson. The court focused on the absence of any previous safety citation concerning this particular machine. The court also noted that even if the employer knew that a dangerous part of the machine was unguarded, it could not have known "that there was a substantial certainty that plaintiff would wear a loose coat, slip where he did, have his coat get caught in the machine in the exact place where it did, and be crushed before someone could turn off the machine."(5)

For these reasons, the court found the facts to be distinguishable from Woodson and more similar to cases in which Woodson claims had been denied on summary judgment - - namely Pendergrass v. Card Care, Inc.,(6) Rose v. Isenhour Brick & Tile Co.,(7); and Regan v. Amerimark Building Products.(8) Consequently, the court granted the employer’s motion for summary judgment, dismissing the plaintiff’s claim.

These cases make clear that the North Carolina Supreme Court and federal courts in North Carolina view the Woodson exception to be very narrow.

(1) Woodson v. Rowland, 329 NC 330, 407 S.E. 2d 222 (1991)

(2) 357 NC 552, 2003 WL 22518654 (2003)

(3) Id (rejecting the test set forth in Wiggins v. Pelikan Inc. 132 NC App. 752, 513 S.E. 2d 829 (1999))

(4) 2004 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 3851 (M.D.N.C. March 8, 2004)

(5) Id.

(6) 333 N.C. 233, 424 S.E.2d 391 (1993).

(7) 344 N.C. 153, 472 S.E.2d 774 (1996).

(8) 127 N.C. App. 225 (1997).