Workers’ Compensation law is a double-edged sword. While employers cannot avoid Comp liability based on the employee’s negligent behavior, the injured employee cannot sue the employer outside of the Comp system for damages relating to the injury. This Workers’ Comp exclusivity doctrine has a limited exception where the employee demonstrates that the injury resulted from the employer’s intentional misconduct that was substantially certain to cause death or serious injury.
This exception was recognized by the North Carolina Supreme Court in its 1991 Woodson v. Rowland decision. Since Woodson was decided, North Carolina courts have limited its reach to only the most egregious situations involving ignorance by the employer of work conditions that would very likely lead to injury or death. While some observers may have considered Woodson largely dead, on Tuesday, the North Carolina Court of Appeals revived an employee’s lawsuit against their employer based on alleged willful ignorance of safety conditions.
In Stephens v. ADP TotalSource DE IV, Inc., an employee had been employed for three weeks at a company that repaired molds for tire manufacturers. The worker was standing directly under the elevated mold when a bolt snapped causing the mold to strike him in the chest, killing him. North Carolina OSHA issued willful serious citations against the company based on work practices involved in the mold repair. The employee’s estate filed a wrongful death claim against the employer, which moved to dismiss the suit based on Workers’ Comp exclusivity. The lower court agreed, and the estate appealed this decision.
In a 2-1 decision, the North Carolina Court of Appeals held that the Woodson exception applies to the facts alleged by the plaintiff. Placing an untrained employee directly beneath the heavy molds constituted willful ignorance of the risks even if the employer was not aware that the bolt would break. Even in the absence of a history of prior safety violations, having the employee work under this load resulted in a substantial certainty of death or serious injury if anything went wrong.
Unlike prior state court decisions, the majority opinion in this case applies a more relaxed standard for applying the Woodson exception. Unless this decision is reversed by the state Supreme Court, it may encourage plaintiffs’ attorneys to attempt to evade Workers’ Comp exclusivity for claims that previously appeared marginal at best. While we caution employers over workplace safety compliance requirements due to the risk of increased OSHA penalties, this decision adds another layer of risk to serious compliance failures.