Intentional Torts Exempted From Being Heard In Workers’ Compensation Courts

On March 21, 2021, Judge William Martini of the Federal District Court of New Jersey dismissed David Eckert’s suit against his employer, U.S. Foods, agreeing with U.S. Food’s argument that Mr. Eckert’s exclusive remedy for his injuries was under the New Jersey Workers’ Compensation Act.

Mr. Eckert was an employee with U.S. Foods on March 25, 2019 when, in the course and scope of his employment, he injured himself after slipping and falling on an oily substance that was on the floor of his workplace. Mr. Eckerd filed in Superior Court and the matter was eventually removed to the Federal Court at U.S. Foods’ request. Mr. Eckert alleged that his employer was negligent and careless in allowing this oily substance to remain on the floor and, due to this negligence and carelessness, he was injured. He also argued that his employer’s actions were intentional and he should be entitled to a civil remedy and the Court of Workers’ Compensation should not exercise jurisdiction over this matter.

The New Jersey Workers’ Compensation Act (“NJWCA”), N.J.S.A. 34:15-8, states in relevant part: “If an injury or death is compensable under this article, a person shall not be liable to anyone at common law or otherwise on account of such injury or death for any act or omission occurring while such person was in the same employ as the person injury or killed, except for intentional wrong.” This Act protects both employees and employers from civil lawsuits by giving the employee statutory guaranteed benefits, albeit at a reduced rate, while the employer is shielded from civil liability for most workplace accidents, barring intentional wrongs. The injured employee would need to prove that their case falls under the intentional wrong exception for the NJWCA to no longer apply. In order to do this, the employee must demonstrate: (1) the employer knew that its actions were “substantially certain to result in injury or death to the employee”; and (2) “the resulting injury and the circumstances of its infliction on the worker were (a) more than a fact of life of industrial employment and (b) plainly beyond anything the Legislature intended the Workers’ Compensation Act to immunize.” Laidlow v. Hariton Machinery Co., 170 N.J. 602, 617 (2002).

Intentional torts are rare in workers’ compensation actions and employers and employees should realize that relief is available in the Superior Court. If filed there, the matter would not be treated as a workers’ compensation claim and the remedies available to the parties would differ than those under the NJWCA. While most work place injuries and accidents will fall under the NJWCA, it is best to be aware of the intentional tort exception and the effects that exception can have on a matter.

Should you have any questions or concerns regarding this exception and its potential impact on your pending workers’ compensation claims, please do not hesitate to contact Brown & Connery’s Workers’ Compensation Group.

By: Kristyn M. Haviland, Associate at Brown & Connery, LLP