Last reviewed and updated: November 9, 2017
What’s in This Article?
1. NJ law allowing lawsuits against an employer for a work injury.
2. Proving an employer’s intentional conduct.
3. NJ court cases where an injured worker sued the employer.
Like Pennsylvania, New Jersey workers’ compensation law prevents injured workers from being able to sue their employers for a work injury. This is known as the exclusivity principle of workers’ compensation, i.e., workers’ compensation benefits are the exclusive remedy for work accidents. However, there are some limited exceptions to this rule. One of the most important exceptions is the intentional wrong exception.
Section 34:15-8 of the New Jersey Workers’ Compensation law provides:
If an injury or death is compensable under this article, a person shall not be liable to anyone at common law or otherwise on account of such injury or death for any act or omission occurring while such person was in the same employ as the person injured or killed, except for intentional wrong. (emphasis added)
Injured workers in New Jersey who succeed in lawsuits against an employer using this exception can receive financial compensation for their injuries and resulting damages, including financial losses and pain and suffering. Claims may be made for any financial losses actually sustained, such as medical bills and lost wages. In addition, claims may be made for financial losses that can reasonably be expected to be incurred in the future, like medical bills.
Industrial and Manufacturing Accidents at Work – Proving an Employer’s Intentional Wrong
Under New Jersey law, an employer may be subject to liability for work accidents when the facts show that the employer engaged in intentional misconduct. Typically, NJ courts will rule in favor of an injured worker when it comes to industrial, factory or manufacturing work accidents. In other industries such as the service industry, courts generally find that injured workers are unable to meet the required standard of proof.
Historically, courts in New Jersey require sufficient evidence of intentional misconduct. The injured worker must be able to prove:
(1) the employer knew that his actions were substantially certain to result in injury or death to the employee, and
(2) the facts and circumstances of the work accident show that the hazard or danger was more than a fact of life of industrial employment and was beyond anything the legislature intended to immunize.
The employer’s conduct must be particularly egregious. Simply ignoring known work hazards is not enough. There must be conduct such as:
- lying to or deceiving state or federal work safety investigators,
- disabling safety equipment/machinery,
- prior OSHA citations,
- prior, similar accidents, and/or
- previous safety complaints from employees.
New Jersey Supreme Court Cases – Consideration of an Employer’s Intentional Misconduct
Cases Where the NJ Supreme Court Found in Favor of the Injured Worker
1. Millison v. E.I. Du Pont De Nemours & Co. (1985). In this case, the NJ Supreme Court laid out the evidentiary requirements for proving an intentional wrong. The plaintiffs in that case alleged exposure to asbestos which caused asbestos-related diseases. They also alleged that the employer’s medical team fraudulently misled the workers about certain medical test results and that this aggravated the injuries. The court held that exposure to asbestos in and of itself was not enough to meet the standard of proof. However, the court found that misleading the employees about their test results could amount to an intentional wrong.
2. Laidlow v. Hariton Mach. Co., Inc. (2002). The worker suffered a major crushed hand injury requiring amputation of multiple fingers after his hand got caught in a rolling mill machine. He sued his employer, an electrical product manufacturer. The NJ Supreme Court held in favor of the injured worker because there was evidence of prior incidents (near-misses), a disabled safety guard which was enabled only during OSHA inspections, and a history of complaints by employees about the dangerousness of the rolling mill.
3. Mull v. Zeta Consumer Products (2003). The injured worker suffered a hand injury while operating a plastic bag winding machine. She had been repairing a jam in the machine when it turned on, pulling her hand into it. The trial court denied the employer’s motion to dismiss the case. The NJ Superior Court, Appellate Division reversed. On appeal, the NJ Supreme Court held that the plaintiff had presented sufficient acts of the employer’s intentional misconduct. There was evidence that:
- the employer had been cited by OSHA for safety violations,
- the employer removed safety devices from the winding machine,
- another employee had sustained a similar injury, and
- the employer was aware that employees had complained about safety concerns.
4. Crippen v. Cent. Jersey Concrete Pipe Co. (2003). The worker in this case was killed when he suffocated after falling into a sand/gravel hopper. A year and a half prior to this accident, the employer was cited by OSHA for multiple violations which still had not been resolved by the time the accident occurred. The NJ Supreme Court allowed the worker’s claims against the employer, finding that there was sufficient evidence that the employer had engaged in intentional misconduct, i.e., deliberate failure to cure OSHA violations and deceiving OSHA investigators.
Cases Where the NJ Supreme Court Found in Favor of the Employer
1. Tomeo v. Thomas Whitesell Construction Co. (2003). The injured worker suffered serious hand injuries when using a snow blower; his hand got caught into one of the propellers. He argued that the safety lever had been disengaged to allow workers to remove snow at a faster pace. The NJ Supreme Court upheld dismissal of the case, finding that the mere fact of disengaging a safety lever was not enough to show that the employer was aware of a substantial certainty of injury.
2. Van Dunk v. Reckson Assocs. Realty Corp. (2012). The worker in this case was seriously injured when a trench he was excavating collapsed on him. After the incident, the employer was cited by OSHA for “willful violations,” i.e., failing to use OSHA-mandated protective measures and failing to comply with sloping requirements. The trial court agreed with the employer and dismissed the case. On appeal, the NJ Superior Court reversed. However, the NJ Supreme Court agreed with the trial court and held that a willful OSHA violation was not enough to meet the standard of proof.
Recent New Jersey Appeals Court Cases – Held in Favor of the Injured Employee
1. Alberto v. North East Linen Supply, New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division, February 2016
In a chemical exposure accident which resulted in the death of 2 workers, a jury awarded $3.4 million to the estates of the deceased workers. On appeal, the verdict was upheld. The case was decided under the intentional wrong exception which allows injured workers to sue an employer for a work accident where the employer’s conduct was particularly egregious. At trial, the judge found that the employer ignored repeated safety concerns and went so far as to mislead federal and state work safety inspectors.
2. Soto v. ICO Polymers North America, New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division, October 2017
An injured worker was allowed to sue his employer for a workplace explosion. The case also involved the intentional wrong exception. The trial court granted the employer’s motion for summary judgment. On appeal, the court reversed the trial court and held that there was sufficient evidence of the employer’s wrongdoing, including a prior explosion, the employer’s promise to implement safety inspections and protocols, and misleading OSHA inspectors.
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