The New Jersey Workers Compensation Act (WCA), N.J.S.A. 34:15-1 to -146, generally prohibits employees from suing their employers for injuries sustained in workplace accidents. In a recent case the Court probed the boundaries of the "intentional wrong" exception to that general rule.
Plaintiff suffered serious injury while riding as a passenger on a forklift in defendant's warehouse. It was a common practice at the warehouse for workers to ride on the forklift while another worker drove the forklift. This practice violates workplace safety regulations promulgated by the U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
Kelly v. Geriatric & Medical Services, Inc., 287 N.J. Super. 567, 571–72 (App. Div. 1996), and determined that plaintiff was a "special employee" of defendant and thus subject to the exclusive remedy of workers compensation.
The court turned next to plaintiff's contention that he is not barred from suing defendant because the company's practice of allowing, if not encouraging, workers to stand on moving forklifts was an intentional wrong, thereby exempting this case from the exclusive remedy of workers' compensation.
Plaintiff argued defendant's misconduct constitutes intentional wrong because it occurred repeatedly. The court rejected the argument that violative conduct is an intentional wrong merely because it is an ongoing practice.
The court interpreted Millison v. E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co., 101 N.J. 161 (1985) as narrowing the circumstances when the intentional wrong exemption applies in recognition that reckless or negligent conduct often reflects a "deliberate" business decision by employers to promote speed and efficiency at the expense of workplace safety. The court concluded the intentional wrong exception would significantly erode the legislative preference for the workers' compensation remedy if all a plaintiff must show is that the negligent or reckless conduct was committed repeatedly.
Conduct not sufficiently egregious
The court surveyed a series of Supreme Court cases that applied the Millison analytical framework and concluded that defendant's violative conduct was not sufficiently egregious to rise to the level of an intentional wrong. The court noted the cases following Millison that found intentional wrong involved violative conduct that was not just committed on multiple occasions but was repeated in the face of efforts by government regulators or others to put a stop to the practice.
An employer's wrongful conduct is especially egregious when deception is used to conceal the repetition.
In this case, there were no prior forklift-related accidents or injuries, no prior OSHA citations pertaining to forklift operations, and no prior complaints from workers about unsafe forklift practices. Nor did defendant attempt to conceal its violative practice or otherwise deceive safety investigators.
The court thus concluded that plaintiff failed to show his injury was substantially certain to occur and that the circumstances of its infliction were more than a fact of life of industrial employment.
CARLTON HOCUTT III VS. MINDA SUPPLY COMPANY (L-6537-17) decided August 7, 2020, 2020 WL 455201
Jon L. Gelman of Wayne NJ is the author of NJ Workers’ Compensation Law (West-Thomson-Reuters) and co-author of the national treatise, Modern Workers’ Compensation Law (West-Thomson-Reuters). For over 4 decades the Law Offices of Jon L Gelman 1.973.696.7900 firstname.lastname@example.org has been representing injured workers and their families who have suffered occupational accidents and illnesses.
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Author: "Workers' Compensation Law" West-Thomson-Reuters