A Forklift Operator Walks into a Bar
Exclusivity Provision of the NJ Workers’ Compensation Act Bars Employee’s Personal Injury Claim
On August 7, 2020, the New Jersey Appellate Division upheld the trial court’s dismissal of a negligence action filed by a leased warehouse worker against his employer for injuries sustained while on duty. In Hocutt v. Minda Supply Company, the Court held that the leased worker was a “special employee” of the warehouse, subjecting him to the exclusive remedy of workers’ compensation for his injuries, as provided by the New Jersey Workers’ Compensation Act (WCA). Accordingly, his claims were barred by the exclusivity provision of the WCA, which prohibits an employee from bringing a civil suit against an employer for work-related injuries, absent the commission of an intentional wrong.
Facts in Hocutt
Minda Supply operates a warehouse that stores goods for the dry-cleaning industry. Carlton Hocutt accepted the opportunity to work at the warehouse through a leasing agency. On his second day, Mr. Hocutt was riding on the back of a forklift when the driver inadvertently backed the forklift into an I-Beam, severely injuring Mr. Hocutt’s leg. Though warehouse employees commonly rode on the forklifts, this practice violates federal workplace safety regulations. Accordingly, as a result of the accident, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued three citations to the warehouse for workplace safety violations.
“An Exceptional Wrong; Not an Intentional Wrong”
Mr. Hocutt sued for damages, alleging that his injuries were caused by the warehouse’s negligence. The trial court dismissed the lawsuit, ruling that Mr. Hocutt’s exclusive remedy rests in workers’ compensation. Mr. Hocutt appealed the trial court’s decision, claiming he was not an employee within the meaning of the WCA, and even if he were, the warehouse committed an intentional wrong, conduct exempt from the application of the WCA.
The Appellate Court first conducted a five-part analysis and determined that the nature of Mr. Hocutt’s relationship with the warehouse rendered him a “special employee” for purposes of application of the WCA. Next, the Court examined case law interpreting the intentional wrong exception to the WCA, indicative of a growing trend toward restricting the circumstances in which the intentional wrong exception applies. Specifically, the Court compared the facts in Hocutt to those of prior cases where the intentional wrong exception was found to apply, to determine whether the employer’s conduct created a substantial certainty that injury would occur. The Court noted that there were: (1) no proofs of prior forklift-related accidents or injuries; (2) no prior OSHA violations pertaining to forklift operation; (3) no failure to abate such OSHA violations; (4) no prior complaints from workers about forklift practices; and (5) no evidence that the employer took steps to conceal violative practices or otherwise deceive investigators. The absence of this evidence suggested Mr. Hocutt’s injuries were the result an unfortunate accident, as opposed to the substantial certainty of injury required to establish an intentional wrong. Thus, the Appellate Court concluded that although the warehouse may have committed an “exceptional wrong,” it did not commit an intentional wrong under the WCA.
The Appellate Court also reiterated that an OSHA violation is not a per se intentional wrong, reasoning that many unsafe workplace practices are deliberate in the sense that the employers made a business decision to maximize speed and efficiency at the expense of worker safety, and though stopping short of condoning such practices, recognizing that this is a fact of life in industrial workplaces. Of importance is whether the employer’s conduct was so egregious as to fall “plainly beyond anything the legislature could have contemplated as entitling the employee to recover only under the WCA.” In Hocutt, the Appellate Division held that it was not.
Though a seemingly fact-specific inquiry, in the absence of egregious conduct or aggravating factors, workers’ compensation remains the exclusive remedy for workplace injuries. Nonetheless, employers can protect themselves from civil liability under the intentional wrong exception of the WCA by discontinuing wrongful or dangerous practices upon notification of both potential and actual hazards. Employers should be careful to document any complaints and subsequent remedial actions taken. This will place the employer in the best position, should any such claims arise.
For more information regarding this decision and best practices for defending against claims under the intentional wrong exception of the Workers’ Compensation Act, please contact Partner John C. Petrella, Esq., Chair of the firm’s Employment Litigation Practice Group via email here or Associate Latiqua M. Liles, Esq., via email here.