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Work in "Ultrahazardous" Activity Does Not Provide North Carolina Employees with Exception to Workers' Compensation Exclusivity

    Client Alerts
  • March 1, 2017

Workers’ Compensation exclusivity means that for the overwhelming majority of workplace injuries, employees are limited to compensation through the Comp system. Under the North Carolina Supreme Court’s Woodson decision, employees can sue for injury outside of Workers’ Comp in unusual situations involving behavior by the employer that approaches reckless or intentional conduct. Earlier this month, the North Carolina Court of Appeals rejected an employee’s attempt to extend Woodson to situations involving injuries resulting from an "ultrahazardous" activity.

In Fagundes v. Ammons Development Group, Inc., the plaintiff worked for a blasting company. He was seriously injured after being struck by debris ejected from a blasting operation. He sued his employer for negligence in connection with the injuries, but the trial court dismissed the claim on the basis of Workers’ Compensation exclusivity. He argued that under common law, ultrahazardous occupations result in strict liability on the part of the business. He stated that allowing claims outside of the Comp process in these circumstances was simply a natural extension of the Woodson doctrine.

The Court of Appeals disagreed, affirming dismissal of the claim. The Workers’ Compensation Act makes clear that employers cannot be sued for injuries outside of the Comp system based on simple negligence. The Act does not distinguish between the nature of the work when establishing this exclusivity. Woodson created a narrow exception to Workers’ Comp exclusivity in situations where the employer intentionally engages in misconduct knowing that it is substantially certain to result in serious injury or death. The inherently hazardous nature of the work is not a factor in this analysis.

The General Assembly overrode common law principles when enacting the Comp Act, substituting a strict liability administrative compensation mechanism. Only the legislature has the power to change this administrative scheme. This decision is the latest in a string of cases under which North Carolina courts have declined to extend Woodson beyond its original narrow scope.