New Jersey Appeals Court Rules Injured Worker’s Lawsuit Against Employer Can Proceed
In a recent New Jersey work injury lawsuit, an appeals court has ruled in favor of the injured worker and against the employer. See Soto v. ICO Polymers North America, New Jersey Superior Court, Appeals Division, October 11, 2017.
The case involved an explosion at a plastic materials company in New Jersey which resulted in serious injuries to a worker. The injured worker sued the employer alleging that the employer committed an intentional wrong.
Background – Lawsuits Against an Employer After a Work Accident in New Jersey
Under NJ law, injured workers are usually not allowed to sue employers for negligence after a work accident. Instead, injured workers in NJ are usually limited to getting compensated via workers’ compensation. However, there are a few, very specific exceptions. The most commonly litigated exception is the intentional wrong exception; an employer that commits an intentional wrong resulting in a work accident may be held liable for causing a work accident. In successful cases, the employer or other parties, may be on the hook for the injured worker’s injuries, medical bills, pain and suffering and more. Visit our New Jersey work injury law practice page for more info.
It’s important to note that the intentional wrong standard is a difficult one to meet. Under NJ law, the plaintiff in a work injury lawsuit involving claims of the employer’s intentional wrong has to prove the following:
(1) the employer knew that its actions were substantially certain to result in injury or death to the worker, and
(2) the specific danger was particularly serious, not just a normal or usual risk associated with the job.
The key is evidence that the employer committed some kind of deceitful or fraudulent conduct or conduct that was particularly egregious. Historically, NJ courts will find in favor of the employer if the only evidence is that the employer just ignored dangerous conditions.
Since a 2002 NJ Supreme Court case which recognized the intentional wrong exception, NJ courts have usually found in favor of employers. Get a history of recent NJ work injury cases where the injured worker sued the employer, alleging an intentional wrong.
However, in the past two years, NJ courts, especially appeals courts, may be turning the tide. The Soto case is the second in two years where a NJ appeals court held in favor of an injured worker and against the employer. Both cases involved claims that the employer committed an intentional wrong. See Alberto v. North East Linen Supply, a February 2016 NJ appeals court case.
Employer’s Intentional Wrong in the Soto Case
In the most recent Soto case, the NJ appeals court found that the employer engaged in conduct that posed a high risk of serious injury or death. This was an important fact. Operations at the plastic materials company produced a highly combustible, fine plastic powder. Given the hazardous nature of the operations and evidence that the company ignored electrical code violations at its NJ facility, the court held that there was sufficient evidence of an intentional wrong. The injured worker’s claims were allowed to go forward.
The evidence revealed facts necessary to substantiate an intentional wrong claim: a prior, similar accident, the employer’s acknowledgement of the risks or dangers, and work safety inspectors being misled.
One year prior to the accident at issue in the Soto case, another employee was injured in an explosion that caused serious damage to the facility. An OSHA inspection followed, during which, the OSHA inspector found a significant layer of combustible dust on walls and ceiling beams. The employer was cited for using methods that were unsafe or not approved for hazardous activities. OSHA imposed fines of $7,500. The employer assured OSHA that it would comply with OSHA regulations going forward.
A month later, the president of the company sent an email to managers expressing concern about the dangers of combustible dust at the NJ facility. In the email, the president also indicated that there would be random audits and that the company planned to upgrade its facilities, including the one at issue in New Jersey.
During the following year, evidence showed that no safety measures were conducted or implemented at the New Jersey facility. Various third parties testified that during the year after the first explosion, dust accumulations remained in certain locations at the facility.
These factors led the appeals court to find that there was in fact, sufficient evidence of the employer’s intentional wrong. Therefore, the injured worker’s claims for financial compensation were allowed to proceed. The case may still be appealed by the employer. Stay tuned. For more info, visit the PA & NJ Work Injury Law Library.
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