How far should the “exclusive remedy” provision of workers’ comp go?
In a recent case, two employees of the same company sustained the same injuries. But the state’s Supreme Court said one could sue, and the other couldn’t.
Here’s what happened: A guy working for a recreational vehicle dealership was given a makeshift pre-fab “office” that was heated by a propane stove. He complained that the fumes from the stove made him sick, but the company ignored his complaints.
Then one day his girlfriend found him unconscious in the office. He was later diagnosed with numerous debilitating neurological impairments and declared permanently disabled.
A short time later, a new employee was hired to do the same job. He, too, complained that the fumes were making him sick. And he, too, was eventually found unconscious — this time by a co-worker. He was also eventually declared permanently disabled.
In fact, he died a short time later (the decision doesn’t say whether his death was related to the exposure).
When the first employee and the family of the second combined forces and sued, the company was able to get both cases dismissed by a district court, successfully invoking exclusive remedy.
But the state’s Supreme Court saw things differently. The district court was right, it said, to toss the first employee’s complaint. But the second employee, it said, might have had a point. Granted, the company hadn’t intentionally harmed him. But given all the circumstances, the company might have been reasonably certain that harm would occur. And that might be enough to overcome exclusive remedy.
Now, the case will be heard by a jury, if it isn’t settled first.
While noting that it was hard to sympathize with the company in this case, one of the high court justices nonetheless vehemently disagreed with the decision to let the employee’s case be heard, saying, “I believe the legislature intended Workers’ Compensation to be the exclusive remedy except … where the defendant’s conduct arose from specific intent rather than willfulness. In other words, an assault would allow a personal injury action. Gross negligence, such as we have here, would not.”
The case, Alexander v. Bozeman Motors, Inc., was decided by the Supreme Court of Montana.
What do you think? Does exclusive remedy unfairly protect even reprehensibly negligent employers, or does the dissenting justice have it right — unless an employer sets out to deliberately harm an employee, workers’ comp should always be the only remedy? Feel free to comment below.