Usually, employees can’t sue supervisors for injuries at work — it’s prohibited under state workers’ comp laws. But there are exceptions, as pointed out recently by one state court.
Joan Trivette worked as a high school secretary. She sued the school’s principal because of an injury she says she suffered from being sprayed with a fire extinguisher. Here’s what happened:
A student pulled the safety pin on a fire extinguisher and sprayed it in a classroom. The extinguisher was brought into the area where Trivette and school principal Peter Yount had their offices.
The next day, Yount put the fire extinguisher on Trivette’s desk. Trivette asked him to remove it and replace the safety pin. She says Yount scoffed at her request and continued to play with the extinguisher. Sure enough it went off and a fine powder landed on Trivette’s head and upper body.
The secretary had suffered from a neuromuscular disorder, myasthenia gravis which was in remission at the time of the extinguisher incident. Trivette claims the spraying re-aggravated by myasthenia gravis.
Trivette sued Yount, claiming she was injured on the job as a result of his negligence.
Yount sought to have her lawsuit thrown out, claiming workers’ comp was her exclusive remedy for a workplace injury. Two lower courts refused to throw out the lawsuit on the grounds it qualified for an exception to the workers’ comp exclusive remedy.
North Carolina law allows an exception when a co-worker acts in a willful, wanton and reckless manner. The lower courts ruled Yount was Trivette’s co-worker, not her employer, and that she could possibly show he acted in a willful, wanton and reckless manner.
Yount eventually took his case to the North Carolina Supreme Court on two grounds:
- He wasn’t Trivette’s co-worker, he was her employer, and
- His actions weren’t willful, wanton and reckless.
Co-worker or supervisor or employer?
Yount said a school principal should be classified similarly to a superintendent — both are agents of the school board. That would mean Yount was Trivette’s employer, not a co-worker.
But the high court found the principal should be classified as a supervisor of the secretary. State courts had previously determined that supervisors and those they supervise should be classified as co-workers. The court said that was the case here.
Ruling that the principal was her co-worker would allow Trivette’s case to go forward. But the second question also had to be answered.
Here, the court agreed with the principal:
“Even if we assume that [Yount] knew that an unexpected discharge would be messy and unpleasant, we do not believe the evidence before us supports an inference that [Yount] was willfully, wantonly and recklessly negligent, or that he was manifestly indifferent to the consequences of an accidental outburst.”
For that reason, the North Carolina Supreme Court threw out Trivette’s lawsuit against Yount (PDF of opinion).
Take-home for employees: Although workers’ comp laws vary from state to state, it is possible for workers to sue their co-workers for workplace injuries as an exception to the exclusive remedy. But while they can sue, the burden of proof is high.
(Trivette v. Yount, Supreme Court of NC, No. 32A12, 12/14/12)