Exclusive remedy provisions of North Carolina’s workers’ compensation law prevent injured workers or their families from pursuing litigation against employers for almost all work site accidents. However, third-party liability litigation may be appropriate if another person or entity was at least partially responsible for what happened.
This was the allegation in the case of Fleming v. Sanders Lead Co., an appeal before the Alabama Supreme Court.
Tragically, one worker was killed and another severely and permanently brain-damaged when a tanker trailer on the back of a semi-truck backed over them while they were at work. The families of the workers filed lawsuits – one for wrongful death and another for personal injury – on their behalf, alleging that a lead company across the street undertook safety inspections at the work site, and failed in this duty to adequately carry them out.
Decedent was a shipping department supervisor at a plastics recycling plant and injured plaintiff was training to become a supervisor. The company would recycle plastic bottles and turn them into pellets for resale.
The company did not have its own safety department. Across the street was defendants’ firm, which was in the business of recycling lead-acid automobile batteries. Court records indicate the battery recycling plant was responsible for overseeing compliance with regulations from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
Sanders (defendant battery company) held orientation and new safety training to new plastic recycling plant workers. The company also handled OSHA safety logs for the recycling plant.
Supervisors with the plastics company were responsible to hold biweekly safety meetings to address specific concerns in their department. Sanders created a safety handbook especially for employees of the plastics recycling firm. That handbook indicated Sanders’ safety administrators would conduct weekly safety inspections.
On the date of this incident, a semi-truck driver had arrived to pick up some plastic pellets from the bay. He had reportedly done so numerous times at the same location without a spotter, and said he’d never been trained or met with any training supervisor.
Decedent and injured employee were at the rear of the truck and decedent reportedly waived him back. Driver continued backing up but then lost sight of the pair. He figured they had stepped to the side, as supervisors usually did during backing. However, he suddenly felt a bump and heard a scream.
He jumped out and realized the supervisor was dead and the trainee was seriously injured. They had been run over by the truck.
Plaintiffs could not sue the workers’ employer, though they could and likely did collect workers’ compensation benefits (though this is not specifically indicated on the record). However, workers’ compensation benefits do not compensate for pain and suffering, loss of consortium, loss of life enjoyment and other non-economic damages.
That’s why they decided to pursue a third-party action against defendants via personal injury lawsuit and wrongful death lawsuit. They alleged the company undertook this duty to inspect, and failed in that duty by not conducting the weekly safety inspections as promised and failing to instruct workers and truck drivers about best OSHA practices for these deliveries.
Trial court granted defense request for summary judgment, but the Alabama Supreme Court appealed, finding defense failed to challenge evidence that established proximate causation with regard to claims of wrongful inspection. The case was remanded for trial.
Contact the Carolina injury lawyers at the Lee Law Offices by calling 800-887-1965.
Fleming v. Sanders Lead Co., Feb. 26, 2016, Alabama Supreme Court
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