State laws make workers’ comp the “exclusive remedy” for employees injured at work for good reason: It prevents them from filing more expensive lawsuits against employers. But there are exceptions, such as intentional harm. That’s what a prison guard argued when he was tased as part of training.
David Harris has worked for the Montana Department of Corrections (DOC) for 13 years as a guard at the state prison. He’s been a member of the Special Response Team (SRT), “an elite weapons and tactical response team whose members are extensively trained to respond to the prison’s most dangerous crises such as inmate riots, escapes and hostage situations.” Membership is voluntary.
In 2006, the state prison’s warden decided it would buy and use tasers manufactured by Taser International. The warden issued a policy that any employees who wanted to use a taser had to complete training, which included being tased for five seconds. The purpose: to instill in the trainees an understanding of the effects of the taser and encourage them to use the devices in a safe manner.
The warden said none of the training was intended to injure any of the trainees. Safety precautions would be used during the training to avoid injury. No employees were required to use tasers, but the training was mandatory for all SRT members.
Before guards took the training, all DOC prison wardens took it and experienced the five-second exposure. None were injured.
One month later, training was held for SRT members, according to standards set by Taser International. The risks of undergoing taser exposure were disclosed in a written consent form that Harris signed. None of the SRT members, including Harris, objected to being tased as part of the training.
The SRT commander was tased first. He wasn’t injured, and afterward he served as a spotter for the other trainees.
However, Harris claimed to have sustained injuries to his thoracic and lumbar spine from his five-second exposure. He received workers’ comp benefits.
Three years after the training, Harris filed a lawsuit against the State of Montana and the DOC, alleging he suffered an intentional injury by his fellow employee when he was tased during the 2006 training.
A court granted summary judgment to the DOC, throwing out Harris’ complaint.
Recently, the case was heard by the Montana Supreme Court.
Exception to ‘exclusive remedy’?
Montana law says intentional injury is caused by an “intentional and deliberate act that is specifically and actually intended to cause injury to the employee injured and there is actual knowledge that an injury is certain to occur.”
Harris argued although the DOC didn’t actually intend to injure him, he was intentionally subjected to the taser and they knew there was the possibility of serious injury.
The DOC said the purpose of the training and voluntary exposure was to educate and train the employees to safely use a taser. They said they didn’t know for sure Harris would be injured.
The Montana Supreme Court said Harris failed to provide any evidence that the intent was to harm rather than educate and train him. For that reason, the court agreed with the previous decision and threw out Harris’ lawsuit. Workers’ comp would remain his exclusive remedy for injuries from being tased during training.
Some notes about taser training:
- The most frequent side effects are neck, back and shoulder injuries. Many trainees fall and hit their heads, shoulders or arms. The severe muscle contraction caused by the shock can fracture neck and back vertebrae. Some trainees heal quickly. Others have suffered permanent damage. Some agencies have banned tasing employees as part of training.
- There are several police officer lawsuits pending against Taser International claiming they suffered serious injuries after being shocked during training.
What do you think about the court’s decision? Let us know in the comments below.
(Harris v. State of Montana, Department of Corrections, Supreme Court of MT, 2013 MT 16, 1/29/13)