Vermont Supreme Court Says No Gross Negligence Exception in Workers’ Compensation Case

Workers’ compensation provides a nice remedy for people who suffer injuries on the job, regardless of fault. The downside is that if you have a serious or fatal accident that is the fault of your employer, your recovery is limited and does not – by any definition – make you whole.

One backdoor around the exclusivity of the workers’ compensation states in many states, like Florida or Texas, for example, is if the employer is grossly negligent, they can be a claim for negligence.

In Vermont, a Chayer v. Ethan Allen, the plaintiff was employed at Ethan Allen’s furniture manufacturing plant in Orleans, Vermont. Plaintiff worked on a double-end tenoning machine which is essentially a conveyor belt on which furniture rests as they move forward between the machine’s saw blades. Plaintiff inadvertently placed his hand on the belt and his hand caught in a “pinch point” and was pulled into the blades which cut off his hand. He had tried to turn off the machine’s shutoff switch but could not do so. Plaintiff’s personal injury lawyer claimed that Ethan Allen knew and discussed this very risk and did not take the necessary precautions. Specifically, Ethan Allen knew that the switches, including the shutoff switch which was critical in this case, were located in such a way as to pose a danger.

Last week, Vermont Supreme Court went in a different direction, holding that the exclusivity of workers’ compensation bars an injured worker’s claims for gross negligence against an employer-employee safety committee The court found that all of Plaintiff’s claims under Vermont law amount to “nothing beyond a breach of the employer’s non-delegable duty to maintain a safe workplace.”

Another thing I found interesting was the Plaintiff’s lawyer’s creative effort to backdoor the workers’ compensation laws by suing the employer-employee safety committee. How that would work from a liability standpoint, as the Vermont Supreme Court points out, is difficult. Would committee members be liable individually? If so, would dissenting or abstaining members also be responsible for the committee’s decisions? If so, how was he or she negligent? The idea is a stretch because I can’t think a committee with no real financial power could liable for failing to convince Ethan Allen to do the right thing. But, again, this Vermont lawyer was in a tough spot trying to get a recovery in this accident case. I doubt there was a serious settlement offer on the table. Obviously, given that the man hand was amputated, this case underscores the weakness of the workers’ comp remedy in cases where the employer negligently caused the Plaintiff’s injury.

Of course, when you read these opinions, you are required to assume all facts most favorable to the Plaintiff. So Ethan Allen might have good explanations for these allegations. Still, it did not leave me with a fuzzy feeling toward one of my favorite furniture stores.

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