Like most states, North Carolina’s Workers’ Compensation laws provide an exclusive remedy for injured workers. In its 1991 Woodson decision, the North Carolina Supreme Court recognized a limited exception to this exclusivity principle where the employer engages in intentional misconduct that is substantially certain to cause serious injury or death to an employee. Woodson resulted in a flood of lawsuits by injured employees seeking to sue their employers outside of the Workers’ Compensation system.
Since Woodson, North Carolina courts have retreated, limiting the exception to a very narrow set of possible facts. Last week in Hamby v. Profile Products, LLC, the North Carolina Court of Appeals demonstrated how narrow the exception has become. In Hamby, the plaintiff lost a leg when he was working on a mulching augur that did not include OSHA required safeguards. He alleged that his employer was aware of this deficiency, and that it was serious enough to cause injury or death to employees operating the equipment.
The Court of Appeals rejected this argument, affirming summary judgment for the employer. The court said that evidence of intentional non-compliance with OSHA standards is insufficient to overcome Workers’ Compensation exclusivity. In this case, the plaintiff was unable to demonstrate that the employer was substantially certain that death or serious injury would result from the violations.
In the vast majority of cases, the plaintiff will not be able to demonstrate the employer’s awareness of this direct threat to employees. Absent some smoking gun evidence such as a previous OSHA citation on this issue, employees injured due to poor employer safety practices will have to look to the Workers’ Compensation system as their exclusive remedy for the injuries.