Employee’s Electrocution Death Falls Within Exclusive Remedy Provision of Workers Compensation and Not in Circuit Court Intentional Tort Action

Yesterday, the Court of Appeal released its published opinion after remand as on leave granted from the Supreme Court in the case of Bagby v. Detroit Edison.12.16.2014, holding that the estate of an employee electrocuted while working for the public utility company could not plead around the exclusive remedy provisions of Michigan’s Workers Disability Compensation Act.  Workers compensation benefits are the exclusive remedy under Michigan law for employees injured “arising out of” and “in the course of” their employment.  MCL 418.131(1), the so-called “intentional tort” exception allows a circuit court, rather than the workers compensation agency (and the attendant administrative apparatus that processes workers compensation claims and litigation) to exercise jurisdiction where an employee, or, as in this case, his or her estate, can show that an employer committed an “intentional tort” that injured the employee.

This is an important provision because it provides a jurisdictional bar to the filing of most claims in circuit courts for remedies due to work injuries.

As explained by the Court of Appeals in this opinion, there are two ways for a plaintiff to show that an employer specifically intended an injury. The plaintiff can provide direct evidence that the employer “had the particular purpose of inflicting an injury upon his employee.”  In the alternative, an employer’s intent can be proven by circumstantial evidence, i.e., that the employer “has actual knowledge that an injury is certain to occur, yet disregards that knowledge.”  Citing Travis v Dreis & Krump Mfg Co, 453 Mich. 149, 168, 180 (1996).

Here, the employee was electrocuted while he was repairing leads.  While the leads were not energized, his ladder was placed next to an energized “bus”.  No evidence was available to determine if the ladder actually came into contact with the bus.

The Court holds that neither the employer, nor any of the employer’s supervisors had actual knowledge that an injury was certain to occur, and disregarded that knowledge.

This is a brief summary of the case.  It is an important decision, especially since the Court of Appeals originally denied leave to appeal the trial court’s decision which would have allowed the suit to proceed in circuit court, rather than in the workers’ compensation agency.

This case comes out after a remand order by the Supreme Court directing the Court of Appeals to grant the previously denied application filed by the defendant, and on the heels of another important enunciation of the proper standard when applying the “intentional tort” exception to the exclusive remedy provision of workers’ compensation.

In June, the Michigan Supreme Court issued an order summarily reversing the published decision of the Court of Appeals in Thomai.v.MIBA Hydramechanica Corp., et al, 303 Mich. App. 196 (2013), a case in which the Court of Appeals actually allowed a circuit court suit to proceed against a manufacturer on the basis that the employee had sufficient basis to proceed under the intentional tort exception to the exclusive remedy provisions of the Michigan Workers’ Disability Compensation Act (WDCA), MCL 418.101 et seq.

The plaintiff was injured while operating a machine at work.  The machine leaked oil onto the floor and workers were constantly required to wipe up the oil with rags to keep the floor and work area dry.  While cleaning up the oil, the plaintiff’s arm became trapped in the machine.  He filed suit in circuit court, which dismissed the action, citing MCL 418.131(1) (the “intentional tort” exception to the exclusive remedy provisions of the WDCA).  The exclusive remedy in Michigan for workplace injuries is under the provisions of the WDCA.

In its published opinion, the Court of Appeals reversed, holding the statute, as well as prior Supreme Court precedent, allows this exception to apply to “deliberate acts” by the employer that are shown to have occurred over a period of time. Here, the allegation is that the machine that injured the plaintiff was in disrepair and needed constant maintenance.  Since the employer knew about this, but did nothing about it, the act of the employer being deliberate could constitute the “intentional” act needed to bring the case out of the exclusive remedy provision of the WDCA.

In its order, thomai.v.MIBA.order.reverse.coa, the Supreme Court notes the trial court gave the plaintiff sufficient time to prove the necessary elements of the intentional tort exception, and, after properly applying those elements to the facts that were in the record, properly dismissed the claim.  The Court therefore reverses the Court of Appeals’ decision noting:  “There is simply no evidence in the record to establish that the defendants wilfully disregarded knowledge that an injury was certain to occur to the plaintiff from his operation of the grooving machine.”

It is also worth noting, although the trial court did not dismiss on these grounds, that the Michigan Workers’ Compensation Agency has primary and exclusive jurisdiction over claims that should be filed under the WDCA, at least at the commencement of an action. On the basis of Michigan Constitutional authority of administrative agencies, as well as on the statutory jurisdiction of circuit courts, the question of compensation for injuries sustained by employees while at work resides exclusively within the purview of the workers’ compensation agency and the automatic benefits and remedies available under the WDCA.  If, during the course of discovery, it is determined that the “intentional tort” exception may apply, then, and only then, should a circuit court exercise jurisdiction over the claim.

If anyone has questions about the impact of these recent decisions on the issues of workers’ compensation claims, please call Carson J. Tucker at (734) 218-3605.

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