North Carolina allows a limited exception from the Workers’ Compensation system as the exclusive remedy for employee injuries. Under the state Supreme Court’s Woodson decision, employees can sue for personal injury in situations where the employer knew that its actions were virtually certain to result in death or serious injury. Ever since the Woodson decision was issued, lower courts have worked to narrow its application. Last week, the North Carolina Court of Appeals affirmed dismissal of a Woodson claim on the pleadings, not even allowing the case to proceed to discovery.
In Blow v. DSM Pharmaceuticals, Inc., the plaintiff was injured through exposure to bromine fumes at a chemical plant. He alleged that the employer had been told by a consultant that the bromine transfer system was not safe, and noted that the accident resulted in the employer being issued 24 serious OSHA citations. Despite these facts, the court refused to hear the claim, concluding that it did not allege facts that could constitute a viable Woodson claim.
The court noted that the consultant’s report never advised the employer of the risk of imminent harm. None of the OSHA citations were classified as repeat or intentional. These facts did not support any possibility that the employer’s actions could meet the knowledge of substantial certainty of death or personal injury standard required to avoid Workers’ Compensation exclusivity. This decision illustrates that only conduct very close to intentional exposure of employees to harm by their employer will support a personal injury claim. Even gross negligence or indifference to risk by the employer will not be enough to meet this standard.