A teen died after being buried in a grain elevator. Can the teen’s family sue the company as an exception to the workers’ compensation exclusive remedy?
Some states allow an intentional tort exception to the workers’ comp exclusive remedy for injured workers or families of those killed on the job. It must be shown that the employer took intentional action that led to the employee’s death.
But that intentional tort exception isn’t universal.
The Nebraska Supreme Court has ruled the family of Joseph Teague can’t sue his employer, Crossroads Cooperative Association.
Teague died after a foreman told him to go into a grain bin with an auger running. OSHA requires such machinery to be shut off if someone enters a bin. Teague was buried in five to seven feet of grain, and his body wasn’t found for 30 minutes. Teague was 18 at the time and less than a week away from graduating from high school.
Crossroads pleaded guilty to a criminal willful violation of the Occupational Safety and Health Act. Crossroads was fined $100,000 and was put on probation for two years. It could have been fined as much as $500,000.
The company also settled a civil case against it for $50,000.
Teague’s family was eligible for death benefits provided under Crossroad’s workers’ compensation insurance policy.
However, the family chose not to collect the workers’ comp benefits and instead filed a lawsuit against Crossroads. The family argued this case should fall outside the exclusive remedy of workers’ comp because Crossroads willfully put Teague into harms way inside the bin.
A state court ruled against the family, which then took its case to the Nebraska Supreme Court.
Among the facts of the case acknowledged by the state’s highest court:
- “The employer in this case willfully violated safety regulations and thereby caused the tragic death of one of its employees.”
- “Teague’s supervisor kept the auger running in the bin in order to facilitate extraction of the grain. This was in clear violation of OSHA regulations.”
- “In further violation of OSHA regulations … Teague’s supervisor stepped momentarily away from his observation of Teague in the bin. When the supervisor returned, Teague was dead.”
But the Nebraska Supreme Court wasn’t convinced this was a case that should fall outside of the state’s workers’ comp law. The court noted OSHA regulations plainly state that they don’t supersede state workers’ comp laws.
Also, the court noted its previous rulings in which it said there is no intentional tort exception to Nebraska’s workers’ comp law. The law defines an accident as “an unexpected or unforeseen injury happening suddenly and violently, with or without human fault.”
Because of that definition, the court had previously ruled against the idea that deliberate acts with specific intent to injure the employee could fall outside of the workers’ comp law.
In an alternate argument, Teague’s family asked the court to adopt an intentional tort exception. The court had two responses to that request:
- First, only the state legislature can make that sort of decision about a law, and
- Even if Nebraska had such an intentional tort exception, this case wouldn’t rise to the occasion. “The [family’s] complaint could be saved only if we were to adopt not just an intentional conduct exception, but one with a broader definition of intentional … that allows an employer to be sued in tort if the employer knew the tortuous conduct was ‘substantially certain’ to result in employee injury.”
For all those reasons, the lawsuit from Teague’s family was rejected by the Nebraska Supreme Court. The family can still collect death benefits from Crossroads’ workers’ comp policy.
Nebraska not alone
The Nebraska Supreme Court noted in its opinion that only about a dozen states have adopted the “substantially certain to cause injury” test to allow an exception to workers’ comp coverage for an injury or death.
Among the states that have maintained the most strict definition of no exceptions to workers’ comp exclusive remedy, similar to Nebraska, are: Georgia, Iowa, Maine, Ohio, Rhode Island, South Carolina and Virginia. Other states allow intentional tort exceptions but set high bars for to meet the exception.
What do you think about the court’s ruling? Do you think this company paid a high enough penalty for the teen’s death? Let us know in the comments below.
(Estate of Joseph Teague v. Crossroads Cooperative Association, Supreme Court of NE, No. S-12-702, 5/31/13)