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Cummings v. Tuscan Dairies

A-3566-03T1 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2005) (Unpublished)

WORKERS COMPENSATION; EXCLUSIVE REMEDY—Even though the exclusive remedy bar in the Workers Compensation law is to be strictly construed to protect employers, an injured employee is entitled to full discovery rights to create a record on which to rely in attempting to avoid the bar.

A woman was injured in a workplace accident. Boxes had become jammed on a belt/track system. According to her, such jams occurred frequently. To address the jam, “she had to step over the conveyer system. She was not allowed to stop the system.” Her employer had installed “a set of steps on each side of the conveyer system to facilitate crossing the belt.” At the time in question, the woman stepped over the belt but fell on the stairs. She alleged that one set of steps was loose or pushed away from the belt “because it had been struck by a forklift.” This was not the first time she had fallen and she had mentioned the dangerous condition at safety committee meetings. According to her, other people had also fallen or tripped in the same spot. She conceded that she could have avoided crossing over the belt by taking a two minute trip around the conveyor system.

The issue raised was whether the injured woman’s complaint was barred by the exclusive remedy provision of the Workers’ Compensation Law. There is an exception to the exclusive remedy provision for injuries resulting from intentional wrongdoings. Courts are required to interpret this exception strictly “to prevent the exception from consuming the exclusivity design of the Workers’ Compensation Act.” Essentially, a court can only circumvent the exclusivity provision if the “level of risk and exposure to danger is ‘so egregious as to constitute an intention wrong.’” Mere knowledge and appreciation of harm is not sufficient. Essentially, “the intentional wrong exception may be satisfied when the employer’s conduct is ‘plainly beyond anything the legislature could have contemplated as entitling the employee to recover only under the Compensation Act[.]’” Here, the injured woman was seeking full discovery rights to prove that her employer’s conduct was, in fact, egregious. Under the circumstances, the Court agreed that the woman should have such discovery rights because there would otherwise be no record that would enable her to attempt to show that her employer was not entitled to the benefit of the exclusivity provision of the Workers’ Compensation Act.

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