Q: When is workers’ compensation, the so-called “exclusive remedy” for employee injuries, not an exclusive remedy? A: When the injured employee can prove the company knew an injury was likely to occur.
That’s what employee Bruce Houdek had to prove in his case against his employer, ThyssenKrupp.
Houdek had just returned to work on light duty because of a previous injury. His mobility was limited because of the injury.
He was assigned to work on a scissors lift, tagging inventory in a warehouse.
At the same time, another employee was assigned to operate a forklift in the same aisle where Houdek was working.
A supervisor had told the forklift operator to travel at the forklift’s maximum speed when retrieving materials from the warehouse aisles.
The forklift operator entered the aisle where Houdek was working. Not being able to see Houdek, the operator drove the forklift at maximum speed and crushed Houdek against the racks. Houdek’s leg was amputated as a result.
Just before the crash, the forklift driver had warned his supervisor about the dangers of operating the forklift in a warehouse aisle when another employee was working in the same area.
Houdek sued the company for his injury. The company sought to get the lawsuit thrown out, arguing that workers’ comp should be the exclusive remedy in this case.
Is this an exception to workers’ comp coverage?
To be able to sue ThyssenKrupp for damages outside of the workers’ comp system, Houdek had to prove that the company:
- knew of the existence of a dangerous process, procedure or condition within its operation
- knew that if the employee is subjected to that danger that harm would be “a substantial certainty,” and
- required the employee to perform the dangerous task.
The court ruled that ThyssenKrupp gave specific directions to its employees that led to Houdek’s injury.
The judges ruled that the company placed Houdek in harm’s way with no chance to avoid the oncoming forklift.
“Perhaps a twenty-year-old with the speed, agility, and strength of a Force Recon Marine, Army Ranger, Navy Seal or Olympic gymnast could have effected an escape from the oncoming [forklift],” the court wrote in its decision. “Houdek, however, as a middle-aged man whose mobility was limited by his prior physical injury and by being directed by Krupp to work a scissors lift, could not.”
The court said Houdek’s lawsuit against ThyssenKrupp could go forward. It’s likely now that the company will either face an expensive trial or will have to settle out of court.
What do you think of the court’s ruling? Let us know in the Comments Box below.
(Houdek v. ThyussenKrupp Materials, Court of Appeals of Ohio, 8th Dist., No. 95399, 4/7/11)