Foreman’s ‘Willful Disregard’ Of Icy’ Snowy Machine Sends Injury Claims Back To Trial

Frank Ferreri

Cheyenne, WY (WorkersCompensation.com) – A foreman’s knowledge that the area around a spin-straightener was icy and snowy led to possible liability after an oil tubing company employee’s arm became caught in the machine.

In Ramirez v. Brown, No. S-19-0219 (Wyo. 06/19/20), the Wyoming Supreme Court reversed a lower court’s decision, holding that a jury would have to decide whether the foreman “willfully disregarded” the need to act after having knowledge of slippery conditions around the machine.

Knowledge of the Risk

The employee’s injury occurred when he was using the machine, which had sat idle for several days, and slipped on snow and ice that had accumulated around it. The employee experienced multiple hand and arm fractures and received workers’ compensation benefits.

Nonetheless, the employee sued three coworkers, including the foreman. In various capacities, all three held responsibilities related to workplace safety. The trial court held in favor of the coworkers, concluding that they didn’t have actual knowledge of the serious risk to the employee involved and did not intentionally act to cause the employee’s injury.

The employee appealed to the Wyoming Supreme Court.

Under Wyoming’s workers’ compensation law, coworkers are generally immune from being sued, but they may be liable if they “intentionally act to cause physical harm or injury to the injured employee.” The court explained that for the employee to show that his coworkers were liable, he’d have to prove that each:

  1. Knew of the hazard or serious nature of the risk the spin-straightener presented to the employee.
  2. Was responsible for the employee’s safety and work conditions.
  3. Willfully disregarded the need to act despite his personal awareness of the high probability that serious injury or death could result from the employee’s operation of the spin-straightener.

‘Uniquely Aware’

The third factor turned out to be the determining point in the court majority’s decision. While the other two coworkers had “attenuated knowledge” of the safety issues leading to the employee’s injury, the foreman “was uniquely aware of multiple safety concerns about the spin-straightener, including concerns about slipping and falling and the lack of adequate guarding.”

The majority reasoned that the case should go back to a jury, which could “reasonably infer” that the spin-straightener should have been guarded. The majority noted that the company had a safety manual that mirrored OSHA regulations on guarding, but a guard was lacking.

Additionally, the majority highlighted that employees had complained about slippery conditions, explaining that “it was highly probable that serious harm would follow from a slip and fall on snow and ice near an unguarded portion of the spin-straightener.”

With respect to the foreman, the majority noted evidence showing that he received safety complaints and didn’t report them.

“If proven true, [the foreman’s] failure to report … could reflect an intent not to act, in willful disregard of the serious risk,” the majority explained.

Thus, the majority sent the case against the foreman back to the trial court for jury consideration.

A dissenting justice opined that Wyoming’s workers’ compensation law required more specific knowledge than what the foreman had before liability could attach. This justice would have upheld the lower court’s ruling.

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