• The "Exclusive Remedy" Provision Of the Workers’ Compensation Act Withstands an "Intentional Wrong" Challenge
  • July 7, 2012 | Author: Dario J. Badalamenti
  • Law Firm: Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin, P.C. - Roseland Office
  • James Mackenzie v. Macy's, Inc., Docket No. A-2264-10T2, 2012 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 747 (App. Div., decided April 5, 2012)

    The plaintiff was employed by the defendant as a roving engineer. On November 8, 2007, the plaintiff was assigned to assist an outside contractor in the installation of HVAC equipment on the defendant's premises. The work was being supervised by an employee of the defendant.

    The installation required the use of an A-frame ladder approximately seven feet in height, which was provided to the plaintiff and the outside contractor by the defendant. It was the defendant's property and exhibited its logo and a label indicating that it had a capacity of three-hundred pounds. The plaintiff and the outside contractor ascended and descended the ladder individually throughout the project and occasionally occupied the ladder simultaneously. While the outside contractor was on the ladder with the plaintiff making adjustments to the HVAC equipment, one of the ladder's rear legs collapsed, causing the plaintiff to fall to the ground and severely injuring his shoulder and lacerating his head. It was subsequently discovered that the ladder's two rear legs had each been wrapped in two places with packaging tape to cover vertical cracks in both legs extending to the level of the ladder's second rung.

    The plaintiff filed a complaint against the defendant for compensatory and punitive damages, alleging intentional wrongdoing. The plaintiff's engineering expert opined that the likely cause of the ladder's collapse was the combined weight of the outside contractor and the plaintiff, in addition to the pre-existing defect in the ladder. In deposition testimony, both the plaintiff and the outside contractor stated that they had not noticed the tape on the ladder prior to its use. Although the defendant testified that he had made notice of the tape, he neither mentioned it to the plaintiff nor suggested use of another ladder. The defendant further testified that prior to the accident, he had observed both the outside contractor and the plaintiff occupying the ladder simultaneously, but failed to instruct them against this practice. "[I]t's unsafe to work that way," the defendant admitted, "but I have done it myself in the past working with my partners." The defendant stated that at no point prior to the accident did he observe the ladder's stability to change when climbed, nor did he see or hear anything that would suggest that either the outside contractor or the plaintiff were in any danger.

    At the conclusion of discovery, the defendant filed a motion for summary judgment based on the Workers' Compensation Act's so-called "exclusivity provision," N.J.S.A. 34:15-8, which provides, in relevant part, that "if any injury... is compensable under the Act ... a person shall not be liable to anyone at common law or otherwise on account of such injury ... except for an intentional wrong." The defendant's motion was granted, and the matter was dismissed. The plaintiff appealed.

    In affirming the lower court’s ruling, the Appellate Division relied primarily on Laidlow v. Hariton Machinery Co., Inc., 170 N.J. 602 (2002), in which the court delineated a two-prong test for judges to consider in deciding summary judgment motions based on the workers’ compensation exclusivity provision:

    [T]he trial Court must make two separate inquiries. The first is whether, when viewed in a light most favorable to the employee, the evidence could lead a jury to conclude that the employer acted with knowledge that it was substantially certain that a worker would suffer injury. If that question is answered affirmatively, the trial court must then determine whether, if the employee’s allegations are proved, they constitute a simple fact of industrial life or are outside the purview of the conditions the Legislature could have intended to immunize under the Workers’ Compensation bar.

    The Appellate Division found that the evidence in the instant case, when viewed in the plaintiff's favor, was insufficient to support the claim that the defendant knew that its actions were substantially certain to result in injury. As the court reasoned:

    [T]here was no evidence presented in this case that [the defendant] regularly supplied its employees with faulty equipment. Further, although the presence of the tape on the ladder suggested that some repair had been attempted prior to the accident, there was no evidence that would lead anyone present to believe that the repair had been unsuccessful or that the damage was particularly serious. Thus, before the accident, the ladder appeared to be safe. It was steady, it did not move or shake when climbed, and it did not creak or otherwise manifest signs of damage.

    As the plaintiff failed to establish the conduct prong of the Laidlow rule, the Appellate Division found it unnecessary to examine the context prong.