Unsafe Work Conditions and Defective Equipment Injury Claims

Workers have a right to be safe in the workplace, and employers have a legal duty to do everything reasonably possible to keep their employees free from injury.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is a federal agency that enforces workplace safety regulations. Congress empowered OSHA to set and enforce rules and regulations that ensure unsafe work conditions are identified and corrected.

OSHA's powers of workplace oversight includes machinery and equipment. They employ thousands of specialized technicians throughout the country whose primary jobs are to inspect workplace machinery and equipment to be sure it's safe. These technicians make unannounced visits to inspect machinery and equipment, speak with the workers who use the equipment, and communicate safety concerns to the employer.

While most employers follow guidelines for inspecting and maintaining equipment, there are some who overlook maintenance schedules and disregard worker concerns. This can lead to malfunctions that endanger workers. Because of the enormity of some of these machines, workers can be seriously injured or killed.

Unsafe Work Conditions and Workers' Compensation

In most cases, a worker injured while using company equipment is limited to workers' compensation benefits. Under state workers' comp laws, a worker doesn't have to prove his employer was negligent. His injury is proof enough to invoke workers' compensation. The disadvantage is that although workers' comp has a simplified claim process, the injured worker gives up his right to compensation for pain and suffering.

Workers' comp pays for required medical and therapy bills, out-of-pocket expenses (medications, crutches, etc.), and two-thirds of wages lost during treatment and recovery.

If you are injured by machinery or equipment in your workplace, report the injury to your employer as soon as possible. Seek emergency medical care if required; you can report your injury after the hospital discharges you.

After reporting your injury, ask your employer for a list of company-approved physicians. You choose one from the list as your "primary treating physician." Your primary physician makes your initial medical diagnosis and refers you to a specialist, if necessary. When finished recovering, your physician reports to your workers' comp representative that you've reached a level of MMI (maximum medical improvement).

Your doctor will tell your employer if you can return to your previous job, or if you are temporarily or permanently disabled. If your injury is temporarily disabling, your physician won't clear you to return to your previous job until you've fully recovered. If your injury is permanently disabling, you won't be able to return to your previous job or any other job.

Third-party Employer Claims

Under state and federal workers' compensation laws, an employer's negligence is usually irrelevant. Injuries sustained in almost all cases of machine or equipment accidents are treated the same way as any other on-the-job injury.

An exception exists when an employer displays "gross negligence" or a "wanton disregard for safety." In this case, an employee can file a separate third-party claim against the employer. In addition to proving gross negligence and a wanton disregard for safety, most courts require proof that such actions or omissions were intentional. This is a very heavy burden of proof.

Many successful third-party lawsuits are based in part on OSHA violations. Violations alone aren't enough to win a lawsuit, but evidence that an employer ignored OSHA warnings, citations, and fines may be significant in proving intentional conduct.

Example: Avoiding scheduled maintenance

Alex worked in a factory for a company that mass-produced widgets. Alex's duties were to line the widgets up and move them along the widget machine. The widget machine was a massive piece of equipment, weighing almost two thousand pounds.

Alex's employer had been cited by OSHA more than once for missing scheduled maintenance for the widget machine. (Maintenance procedures required shutting the machine down for a full day, which lost $5000 in revenue.) One day, Alex was severely injured when the widget machine's gears locked up. An inspection determined that the gears locked up because they hadn't been regularly lubricated.

Alex filed a lawsuit based on his employer's gross negligence and wanton disregard for his safety. The employer's insurance company attorneys filed a motion asking the court to dismiss the lawsuit, stating that Alex should only be entitled to workers' comp. Alex's attorneys claimed the employer knew he was in violation of OSHA requirements and still operated the widget machine. That constituted gross negligence and a wanton disregard for Alex's safety.

In his statement, the employer said that he meant to have the widget machine lubricated but was on a very tight schedule. He'd scheduled to have the machine lubricated as soon as the order was filled, and he didn't intentionally fail to follow proper maintenance standards.

The court granted the motion and dismissed Alex's lawsuit. In its decision, the court stated that while it agreed the employer's failure to lubricate the widget machine was grossly negligent and displayed a wanton disregard for the worker's safety, Alex didn't prove his employer's actions were intentional.

Third-party Defective Product Claims

If you've been injured on the job as a result of defective machinery or equipment, you may be entitled to make a third-party defective product claim. With a defective product claim, you may receive payment of your medical bills, out-of-pocket expenses, total lost wages, and pain and suffering.

The legal burden for proving a defective product claim is not as high as the burden in an employer negligence claim. You only need to prove the machinery or equipment was defective, and the defect was the direct cause of your injuries. Defective product cases often require testimony from technical experts. In many defective product cases, it comes down to a battle of the experts.

Example: Defective freezer lock

Jade worked at a meat packing plant in a department with 30 other employees. Her duties included moving inventory in and out of one of several freezer compartments. The average temperature in these freezer compartments was just below 32 degrees Fahrenheit.

At the end of a workday, Jade went into one of the freezer compartments to take a final inventory count. As she tried to exit, the door lock jammed. Although the freezer door was never supposed to lock from inside, this day it did. No one noticed that Jade never came out of the freezer compartment, and all her coworkers went home.

Jade was locked in the freezer for more than twelve hours. By the time another worker opened the freezer door the next morning, Jade was suffering from hypothermia and frostbite over her extremities.

Jade filed for workers' compensation benefits. She also retained a personal injury attorney and filed a lawsuit alleging the freezer door's locking mechanism was defective, and caused her injuries. (Jade's attorney did not file a lawsuit against her employer because there was no evidence of gross negligence, wanton disregard for safety, or an element of intention.)

Jade's attorney hired a locksmith with expertise in locks used in subfreezing temperatures. He also obtained a court order prohibiting Jade's employer or anyone else from touching the freezer's locking mechanism until the expert completed his examination. At trial, the expert gave his opinion and photographic proof that the locking mechanism was defective.

The jury ruled in Jade's favor and awarded her reimbursement for medical bills, out-of-pocket expenses, all her lost wages, and a substantial amount for her pain and suffering.

Reimbursing Workers' Compensation

Third-party lawsuits can take months or years before they finally settle or go to trial. In the meantime, workers' comp benefits pay medical bills and expenses. By law, when an injured employee receives an award from a lawsuit, he must reimburse the workers' comp insurance company for its payments on his behalf.

The injured worker's lawsuit award is generally higher than the worker's comp payments. He can keep the difference between the payments and the total amount awarded.

The Role of Attorneys

You probably don't need an attorney if your workplace injuries are minor, or "soft tissue." If your claim involves serious injuries however, you should consult with an experienced attorney as soon as possible.

You must get an attorney if you're considering an employer negligence or defective product lawsuit. Only an experienced personal injury attorney has the expertise required to conduct in-depth pretrial discovery and depositions, subpoena records, and hire technical experts to build a successful case. Most attorneys offer an initial consultation free of charge.

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