Safety and OSHA News

Injured while dislodging jammed machine: Lawsuit or workers’ comp?

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A worker says his supervisor told him to unclog a machine while it was still running. The employee was injured, and now he wants to sue the employer instead of going through the workers’ comp system. Did a court allow him to sue?

Workers’ comp is often referred to as the “exclusive remedy” for employees who are injured on the job. In exchange for coverage of medical bills and, if necessary, wage replacement, the injured worker can’t sue his employer.

However, many states have created an exception for what’s known as “intentional torts,” or, in other words, situations where it can be shown the company intentionally caused an injury or knew an employee would most likely be injured.

This case takes place in Connecticut, where the state supreme court has established a narrow exception to the exclusivity of workers’ comp for intentional torts committed by an employer or a fellow employee “identified as the alter ego of the corporation.” That distinction plays a crucial part in this case.

Rajanikant Patel worked for Flexo Converters U.S.A. at its paper bag manufacturing facility. Patel was injured while attempting to dislodge a bag that was jammed in a machine he was operating during the night shift.

Patel says his injuries resulted from the modification of the machine, specifically, the disabling of a safety feature. The employee also says night supervisor Charles Milsaps told him to reach into the machine to dislodge the jam while it was still running and threatened Patel’s job if he shut down the machine or failed to produce 90 bags per minute.

Did Milsaps’ position as night supervisor make him Flexo’s “alter ego?” Patel said this was the case, and therefore, he should be allowed to sue the company for intentional tort outside of the workers’ comp system.

Flexo denied several of Patel’s allegations regarding what happened the night he was injured. But that was never argued because the company moved for a summary judgment ruling by the trial court which effectively would throw out the case.

The company’s argument for summary judgment: The night supervisor wasn’t the alter ego of the company, so there can’t be an intentional tort lawsuit.

The trial court agreed with the company and threw out Patel’s lawsuit. The injured employee took his case to the Connecticut Supreme Court.

‘Top guy’ or just a shift supervisor?

Patel claimed that Milsaps was the “top person on at night,” and a “top guy” at the paper bag plant.

But was that enough to make him the Flexo’s alter ego and for Patel to sue the company?

In its decision, the Connecticut Supreme Court noted its own narrow exception to the exclusive remedy of workers’ comp.

In previous rulings, the court declined to extend the exception to a supervisory employee’s intentional acts. The court said there is a clear distinction between a supervisor and a person who can be characterized as the alter ego of a corporation.

The alter ego test is stringent. The standard requires that, functionally, there be no difference between the corporation and the alter ego who controls and dominates the corporation’s affairs.

The employer doesn’t become liable for the intentional acts of supervisors who have authority to act on the employer’s behalf. That level of supervisory control isn’t enough to make the manager the company’s alter ego.

The court said, other than saying Milsaps was the top person in the facility at night, Patel presented no evidence to show that the supervisor rose to the level of the company’s alter ego.

For those reasons, the Connecticut Supreme Court agreed with the trial court that there was no question Milsaps wasn’t an alter ego of Flexo, and therefore, Patel couldn’t sue for intentional tort. His injuries would be covered instead by workers’ comp.

Warning for companies — especially small ones

So, does this mean that unless a company CEO orders a safety device removed from machines that companies can’t be sued for intentional tort in cases like this one?

Not necessarily warned the Connecticut Supreme Court in its written opinion in this case:

“Although this court has held that extending liability to the employer for the intentional act of a supervisory employee is inappropriate where the actor is merely a foreman or supervisor, this should not be interpreted to suggest that the title of “foreman” or “supervisor” would always disqualify an employee as an alter ego of the corporation … In the context of a small family owned corporation, for example, a supervisor could sufficiently dominate and control the corporation so as to justify liability under the alter ego theory.”

Clear as mud? Maybe. Of course, if supervisors don’t remove safety guards from machines or tell employees to clear jams while machinery is still running, whether the supervisor is an “alter ego” of the company or not won’t even come into question.

Also, it’s a good idea to remind supervisors that production goals (90 bags per minute, for example) shouldn’t prevail over safety.

What do you think about the court’s ruling? How do you make sure line and shift supervisors make decisions that don’t compromise safety? Let us know in the comments below.

(Patel v. Flexo Converters U.S.A., Inc., CT Supreme Court, No. SC 18817, 6/18/13)

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Comments

  1. I believe that the the court ruling is correct. the worker should have refused to do the job until the machine was locked out and if he got fired for that then he would have a much better case . also has osha been involved ? safety switches should not be bypassed for any reason.

  2. We routinely tell our workers “Safety First” and they are advised that if they feel there is a safety issue, to not operate until the problem is fixed. It’s easier to explain a broken machine to a customer than to explain a hurt employee to OSHA

  3. I think the plaintiff should have prevailed. As the supervisor threatened the worker with termination, there was direct intimidation and Patel can’t be expected to have had the presence of mind to plot out a wrongful termination case while his supervisor was standing over him. If you have an intimidating supervisor and a willful disregard for worker safety (as proven by the removed safety equipment), that spells a hostile corporate culture.

  4. If Mr. Patel had prevailed, industries might place more emphasis on middle management priorities in regard to safety!

  5. I believe the company is in violation. I just left a company where the maintenance manager would routinely threaten an employees job. Many people working can not afford to be let go. Working in a factory for very little money. They need their job and pressured by their boss to just “get the job done”. Companies need to be held accountable for more and supervisors need to know they can’t just make the numbers. Yes, everyone says Safety First, but coming from a place that didn’t listen to safety it is very sad. As the safety professional I was told NOT to do many things, and I had to find a new job and move forward with a new life. Even now it is hard to do the right thing in my situation but I am in the process to protect “my employees”.

  6. Safety Manager says:

    I disagree with this courts decision. Here’s why. Being a Safety Manager for a plant that operates 24/7, many times 3rd shift must rely on Crew leaders to make the decision for operations which is vital to the company’s bottom line. Therefore at that time, they are the companies alter ego. If it was during “normal” business hours ( like 9-5 ) or if there was someone in management available by phone 24 hours, then I would agree with the courts decision. With that being said, if it were me, in my state, first the supervisor would have been terminated for failing to abide by safety regs for the company and intentionally causing a subordinate’s injury. Second, they employee should have had SOME common sense to know you DO NOT PUT YOUR HANDS INTO MOVING EQUIPMENT. But, like my daddy always said, “Common sense isn’t so common.” Finally, if I were the employee I would have personally sued the supervisor for 1. removing or have removed safety features on a piece of equipment and 2. Threatening an employee 3.Requiring and employee to go against common safety practices.

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