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Underage Employee's Death After Removal of Machine Guard Does Not Escape Workers' Compensation Preemption

    Client Alerts
  • December 03, 2010

In North Carolina, as in most states, injured employees are not permitted to sue their employers on claims of personal injury outside of the Workers' Compensation process. This claims preemption does not apply in limited circumstances. If the employer intentionally or recklessly injures the employee, or if its ignorance of citations for violation of OSHA safety rules (called a Woodson claim in North Carolina) result in death or injury, the employee can sue for negligent or intentional conduct.

A new case from the North Carolina Court of Appeals demonstrates how limited these exceptions have become. In Valenzuela v. Pallet Express, Inc., a 17-year-old employee was killed after he was pulled into a pallet shredding machine on which the safety guard had been removed in violation of OSHA rules and North Carolina law. His estate sued, alleging that these circumstances were egregious enough to create an exception from Workers' Compensation preemption.

The Court of Appeals affirmed dismissal of the claim on summary judgment. It concluded that while serious, the employer's conduct could not be shown as substantially certain to cause serious injury or death. The removal of the guard and placement of an underage employee on this equipment are not tantamount to knowledge of impending injury.

This case shows that absent intentional or highly reckless conduct, Woodson claims will only be recognized where the employer has already been cited by OSHA, and its failure to take corrective measures results in injury to the employee. Other injuries are only compensable under the Workers' Compensation Act.