On March 18, 2016, the Alabama Supreme Court dismissed tort claims filed by an employee who was injured in an on-the-job explosion. Rock Wool Mfg. Co. v. Miller, No. 1141252, 2016 WL 1077268 (Ala. Mar. 18, 2016). The employee claimed that his employer, Rock Wool, intentionally removed safety equipment called “explosion doors” prior to the accident. Because of that alleged intentional conduct, the employee argued that his claims should not be limited to the remedies provided by the Alabama Workers’ Compensation Act. Instead, he wanted to sue for damages under tort law. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court found that claims against an employer, even for intentional acts, are barred by the Workers’ Compensation Act, so long as those claims arise within the bounds of the working relationship. As a result, the Supreme Court issued an order dismissing the tort claims.
Despite the holding of Rock Wool, employers should remain cautious regarding claims of intentional injury. While the employing entity itself is protected by the exclusive-remedy provisions of the Alabama Workers’ Compensation Act, individual employees are not entitled to the same protections. For example, in the Rock Wool case, there is still a possibility that the individual employees who made the decision to remove the “explosion doors” could be liable for intentionally or recklessly injuring the employee.
I frequently receive telephone calls from clients asking if they are required to create a light duty position for an employee who is injured on the job. The well-reasoned response to that question is: “It depends on your definition of ‘create.'”
While the question seems simple, this is an extremely complex area of the law that involves the intersection of the Alabama Workers’ Compensation Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Family and Medical Leave Act. Alabama law is clear: the Alabama Workers’ Compensation Act does not require an employer to create a light-duty position for an employee injured on-the-job. Bleier v. Wellington Sears Co., 757 So.2d 1163, 1172 (Ala. 2000).
But, Alabama law is not the final authority for injured employees, because the Americans with Disabilities Act potentially applies. If an employee is a “qualified individual with a disability” (a topic which could occupy several pages of discussion) an employer may be required to supply the employee with a reasonable accommodation. Here’s where the confusion can occur. An employer is not required to create a light duty position. Nevertheless, if a light duty position is available, the employer may be required to transfer the employee to that position as a reasonable accommodation. Moreover, if the employer has previously created positions for injured employees, there may be a requirement to create a position again.
In addition to the ADA, the Family and Medical Leave Act adds to the complexity of this question. While the FMLA does not impose any accommodation requirements on employers, it does provide protection for employees suffering from a “serious health condition.” Employees on FMLA leave are entitled to reinstatement after exhaustion of their leave. The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals (which reviews FMLA cases in Alabama) has imposed a heavy burden on employers who fail to return employees to work. Even if you don’t have to create a light duty position for the employee, you may have an obligation to allow the employee to try to return to work, or give them additional time to return.
Every case is different. When making employment decisions about injured employees, talk to your attorney before taking final action.