Work Injury Lawsuits Against an Employer in New Jersey – Intentional Wrong Revisited
Alberto v. North East Linen Supply (New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division, Feb. 2016)
In a recent case, Alberto v. North East Linen Supply, the New Jersey Superior Court held in favor of the families of two deceased employees, upholding a $3.3 million trial verdict in Essex County. The defendant in that case was the employer of two workers who died while cleaning an industrial tank. They died of chemical inhalation. One of the men suffered 1st degree burns to over 50% of his body including his face, eyes and throat.
This case is not a significant departure from New Jersey law in work injury cases. However, in recent years, trial and appellate courts in New Jersey have generally found in favor of employers in lawsuits brought by injured workers. See e.g., Van Dunk v. Reckson Associations (New Jersey Supreme Court, 2012; holding that the employer’s knowledge of a workplace hazard did not amount to an intentional wrong and therefore, the injured worker’s lawsuit was not allowed). So in that regard, the recent Alberto case is a departure from the general trend in recent years in which courts have ruled against injured workers.
Related News: New Jersey Work Injury Lawsuit News 2016 – Recent Cases Favor Workers
Can Injured Workers Sue Their Employers in New Jersey?
Injured workers in New Jersey often want to know the answer to this question, “Can I sue my employer for a work injury?” The answer is often complex and requires an in-depth look at the facts of the case, such as, what caused the accident, did the employer commit any misconduct, and if so, how often?
Generally, New Jersey workers’ compensation law (N.J.S.A. 34:15-8, see below) prevents injured workers from suing their employers for injuries sustained in work accidents. This principle is known as the exclusivity principle of workers’ compensation. In exchange for the right to receive workers’ compensation benefits, injured workers can’t sue their employers.
Negligence versus Intentional Wrongdoing
Basically, employers get a free pass in New Jersey for being negligent or making mistakes which lead to work accidents and injuries. However, the protection only applies to acts of negligence. Once an employer engages in misconduct or intentional wrongdoing, the employer becomes subject to liability. In other words, injured workers can bring work injury lawsuits against employers in New Jersey for intentional wrongdoing.
What Constitutes Intentional Wrongdoing?
In order to demonstrate intentional wrongdoing, the injured worker must be able to prove that the employer knew his actions were substantially certain to result in injury or death. In addition, there must be evidence that the injury and the circumstances of the accident were 1. more than just a fact of life of employment, and 2. well beyond anything the workers’ compensation law was intended to immunize.
Proving an intentional wrong requires a look at the facts of the case. There must be evidence of the following:
- the intentional misleading or withholding of information from employees or OSHA inspectors,
- reports of prior incidents,
- the existence of warning labels, and/or
- the removal of safety precautions.
In the recent Alberto case, there was evidence that the employer failed to train its employees, including managers with safety responsibilities. In addition, there was evidence that the safety manager disregarded company policy which prohibited workers from entering the industrial tank to clean it. The trial judge stated,
“In sum, this was not just a case of neglecting safety standards, or tolerating workplace hazards. This was a case of willful failure to remedy past violations, and repeated deception by the company not just to its own employees, but also to federal and state regulators as to what really was going on at this facility in the wastewater treatment.”
See also Laidlow v. Hariton Machinery Co., Inc., a 2002 New Jersey Supreme Court case which reinstated an injured worker’s claim against his employer. In that case, there was evidence that the employer removed a safety device and deceived OSHA inspectors by reinstalling the safety guard during OSHA inspections and then removing it after they left.
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