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May 25, 2010
When Can Employees Sue for Workplace Injuries?

If an employee is injured on the job, is the employee’s exclusive remedy a workers’ compensation claim? What if an employer is reckless? The Ohio Supreme Court recently looked at a pair of cases to resolve these questions.

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What happened. Employees of two different employers, in separate cases, were injured on the job and claimed their remedies should not be limited to those available under Ohio’s workers’ compensation law.

The two employees challenged the constitutionality of an Ohio statute (Ohio Rev. Code 2745.01) that significantly limits lawsuits by employees for intentional workplace torts by employers. They claimed the standard required to prove an employer’s intent is too high under the law (i.e., the employer committed the act with the intent to injure or with the belief that the injury was substantially certain to occur). The law’s limitations, the employees argued, denied them their right to an open court, a remedy, a jury trial, due process, and other rights guaranteed under the state constitution.

What the court said. According to the court, the state legislature acted within its power in determining that an employee who cannot demonstrate an employer’s “deliberate intent” to cause injury as required under the statute has the same status as an employee injured by employer negligence. Both must seek recovery under the state’s workers’ compensation statutes, and neither has a constitutional right to a jury.

The court asserted that injuries resulting from an employer’s intentional torts fall outside the employment relationship because when an employer intentionally harms its employee, “that act effects a complete breach of the employment relationship, and for purposes of the legal remedy for such an injury, the two parties are not employer and employee, but intentional tortfeasor and victim.” While the statute significantly restricts an employee’s ability to recover, the court pointed out that the statute does not give employers complete immunity for intentional torts and allows an employee to bring a civil suit for damages under common law. The court also noted that the statute conforms to the workplace intentional tort laws in a majority of states. Kaminski v. Metal & Wire Prods. Co., 2010 Ohio 1027 and Stetter v. R.J. Corman Derailment Servs., L.L.C., 2010 Ohio 1029 (3/23/10).

Point to remember: This decision limits employees’ recovery to the workers’ comp system unless there is deliberate intent to cause an injury. Employers that focus on workplace safety improve their chances of avoiding workers’ comp claims as well as claims of intentional harm.

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