Alabama’s Workers’ Compensation Act provides employers with an interesting trade-off. Employees who are injured on the job are entitled to have their medical bills paid by the employer and receive compensation for any resulting disability. But, the amount of disability benefits are specifically set-out and limited by the Act. Workers’ Compensation is a no-fault system. If an employee is injured, he or she is entitled to benefits. Here’s the trade-0ff. In the vast majority of cases, the Workers’ Compensation Act prohibits employees from suing their employer for negligence, wantonness or punitive damages. In short, the Workers’ Compensation Act makes it easier for employees to recover for their injuries, but limits the ability of employees to sue their employers and the amount they can recover.
Of course, there are always exceptions to any law. The Workers’ Compensation Act also recognizes a limited set of cases in which the employee can sue his or her co-employees for punitive damages. If a co-employee engages in “willful conduct” that causes injury to another employee, the co-employee can be sued. Generally, the Act recognizes four types of “willful conduct”: (1) acting with a purpose, intent or design to injure another; (2) willful and intentional removal from a machine of a safety guard or safety device provided by the manufacturer of the machine with knowledge that injury or death would likely or probably result from the removal; (3) intoxication that causes injury or death of a co-employee; and, (4) willful and intentional violation of a specific written safety rule of the employer after written notice.
Over the years, employees have attempted to expand the reach of those four examples of “willful conduct.” Last week, the Alabama Supreme Court rejected such an attempt in Saarinen v. Hall, No. 1160066, 2017 WL 3821732 (Ala. Sep. 1, 2017). In that case, Louis Hall was injured by a power saw, which was manufactured with a guard that was insufficient to protect Hall. At least a month before he was injured, his employer purchased a replacement saw with a better guard from a different manufacturer. But, the replacement saw was not installed because his employer was too busy to change out the saws.
Hall injured his hand on the saw with the insufficient guard, and then sued his supervisors for “willful conduct.” Hall claimed that their failure to install the new saw was equivalent to the willful and intentional removal of a safety guard. The Alabama Supreme Court rejected that argument: “Under the facts in this case, the failure to install another, presumably safer, saw that was present on the premises but that had not been put into operation and that was manufactured by a different manufacturer than the saw that injured the plaintiff is not the equivalent of the removal of a safety guard so as to constitute willful conduct ….” Saarinen, 2017 WL 3821732 at *3. Interestingly, the Supreme Court expressly refused to decide whether the failure to install a replacement machine manufactured by the same manufacturer might be equivalent to removal of a safety device.