Raleigh, NC (WorkersCompensation.com) – While buying a non-OSHA compliant tractor seat without a seatbelt from eBay created an unsafe condition, it didn’t rise to the level required in North Carolina to take the claim out of workers’ compensation law.
Instead, according to the court in Hidalgo v. Erosion Control Services Inc., No. COA 19-756 (N.C. Ct. App. 07/21/20), the worker’s estate couldn’t sue the company under tort law because there was no evidence of “intentional misconduct” required to avoid the state’s exclusive remedy provision.
While driving the tractor on a company construction site, the worker was ejected and fatally injured when the tractor rolled over and rolled on top of him. The worker’s estate sued, claiming a wrongful death tort.
The estate alleged that the company was negligent when it replaced the seat on the tractor with one that didn’t have a seatbelt. The company procured the seat from eBay after the manufacturer was unable to supply one.
In response, the company argued that the worker was operating the tractor outside of the designated project area where no work for the company was going on. Nonetheless, OSHA cited the company for four workplace safety violations related to the tractor.
At trial, the court ruled in favor of the estate, concluding that the exclusivity provision didn’t apply. That prompted the company to appeal.
Under North Carolina’s workers’ compensation law, the exclusive remedy provision limits the amount of recovery available for work-related injuries and removes the employee’s right to pursue larger damage awards in tort lawsuits.
However, there is an exception. An employee (or his estate) can sue in cases where an employer intentionally engages in misconduct knowing it is substantially certain to cause serious injury or death.
The appeals court had to consider whether the worker’s death in this case occurred because the company intentionally engaged in misconduct. Its answer: No.
The court highlighted that there was no indication that the company directed the worker to drive the tractor into the area where the rollover occurred. Additionally, although the company received multiple citations related to the incident in question, there was no “history or pattern” pertaining to tractor safety prior to the incident in question.
Regarding the tractor seat, the court noted there was “no question” the lack of a seatbelt created an unsafe condition. However, by itself, the nonexistent seatbelt did not make “it substantially certain death or serious injury would occur when operating the tractor.” The seat had been in use for over a year before the worker’s accident happened without incident.
According to the court, purchasing a replacement seat without a seatbelt didn’t constitute misconduct that was “substantially certain to lead” to the worker’s serious injury or death. Thus, the exclusive remedy provision still applied, and the worker’s estate would only be able to claim workers’ compensation benefits.
As a result, the court remanded the case back to the trial court to enter judgment in the company’s favor.