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Death Resulting from High Risk Operation Does Not Trigger Woodson Liability

    Client Alerts
  • November 14, 2008

In its 1991 Woodson decision, the North Carolina Supreme Court held that in some circumstances, injured employees or their estates could sue employers for negligence outside of the State’s Workers’ Compensation system.  Woodson claims were supposed to be limited to instances where the employer intentionally engaged in misconduct that was substantially certain to result in serious injury or death to the employee.  Typically, this intent was demonstrated by an employee being injured due to workplace conditions that had previously been the subject of an OSHA citation.

Despite these legal limitations, Woodson initially led to a flood of lawsuits by employees attempting to evade the Workers’ Compensation system’s exclusive remedy.  In subsequent cases, North Carolina courts substantially restricted Woodson’s operation to extreme examples of employer misconduct.  Last week, in Edwards v. GE Lighting Sys., Inc., the North Carolina Court of Appeals continued this narrow interpretation.  In this case, GE was sued by the estate of an employee who died as a result of carbon monoxide poisoning in an industrial operation described by GE as high risk.  The plaintiff alleged a number of safety and maintenance problems in the facility, and noted a number of serious OSHA citations following the accident.

Even with these alleged facts, the Court of Appeals still found Woodson inapplicable.  Despite claims of serious negligence, the plaintiffs never alleged that GE knew that its conduct was substantially certain to cause serious injury or death.  Alleged lack of adequate maintenance and failure to follow a consultant’s recommendations regarding maintenance are not enough to demonstrate such knowledge.

The subsequent OSHA citations do not change this analysis. Similarly, employers in high risk operations are not held to a special standard under Woodson.  Edwards demonstrates that absent extraordinary facts showing employer knowledge of a certain hazard, employees cannot look outside of Workers’ Compensation for injury compensation.