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Gonzalez v. Ideal Tile Importing Co., Inc.

371 N.J. Super. 349, 853 A.2d 298 (App. Div. 2004)

OSHA; PREEMPTION—OSHA preempts state laws that purport to set product safety standards where OSHA has promulgated a standard for the product and where the state standard is in conflict with OSHA’s standards and are not merely a supplementation of OSHA’s standards.

An employee was injured at work when he was struck by a forklift. He then brought a products liability claim against the forklift’s manufacturer. The lower court dismissed the claim, concluding that it was preempted by federal law based on the manufacturer’s argument that tort claims for workplace injuries are preempted when the allegedly defective product had been manufactured in compliance with federal regulations.

The Appellate Division found that the forklift manufacturer’s argument required it to first consider the purpose of the federal law that allegedly preempted the employee’s claim. Both parties agreed that Occupational Safety and Health Act’s standards govern manufacturers. The purpose of OSHA is to “assure so far as possible every working man and woman in the Nation safe and healthful working conditions and to preserve our human resources.” To pursue this goal, the Secretary of Labor is authorized to promulgate workplace standards for safety and health, and Congress created the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to enforce those standards. The Court found that the only dispute was whether OSHA’s standards allowed state supplementation or whether they were the sole standards by which the employee’s claim could be assessed.

The regulations adopted by the Secretary of Labor provided that forklifts must meet the standards established by the American National Standard for Powered Industrial Trucks (ANSI). ANSI requires that forklifts be equipped with an operator controlled horn or other sound-producing device. However, the Court noted that ANSI did not require an “automatic audible alarm,” “an automatic flashing light of some sort,” or “a system of mirrors,” each of which the employee’s expert claimed were necessary to make the forklift a safe product. The employee argued that the ANSI standards created only a minimum safety standard and that ANSI’s failure to require additional warning devices allowed this area to be regulated by the states.

The Court ruled that preemption could be express or implied and that there are two types of implied preemption: “field preemption” and “conflict preemption.” Then it held that this particular claim might or might not have been barred by express preemption depending on the particular ANSI standard standards involved. OSHA’s preemption clause provides that “nothing in the Act shall prevent any State agency or court from asserting jurisdiction under State law over any occupational safety or health issue” with respect to which no standard is in effect. The Appellate Division found that this clause directs that the kind of state action saved from preemption is the kind where a state provides standards other than those set forth by federal law. For the same reasons, the Court found that “field preemption” did not apply. It held that the Act’s preemption clause saved state tort law from preemption wherever Congress had not pervasively regulated the field so as to leave no room for state supplementation. Therefore, the Court concluded that field preemption did not apply to bar this particular employee’s claim.

Unfortunately for the injured employee, after reviewing the ANSI standards, the Court held that conflict preemption barred the claim. In the Court’s view, the employee’s liability theory suggested imposing standards that would be in direct conflict with and, not “merely supplemental” to, the ANSI standards. Thus, the Court concluded that the lower court properly dismissed the employee’s claim for damages based on the company’s alleged failure to comply with OSHA standards.

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