The exclusive remedy provision is one of the most impactful provisions in the North Carolina Workers’ Compensation Act. This provision essentially forces injured workers to file workers’ compensation claims rather than sue their employers for workplace injuries.
However, the exclusive remedy provision is not absolute. There are rare exceptions that permit an employee or a deceased employee’s family to pursue a personal injury lawsuit against an employer. The recent case of North Carolina resident Rodney Baker is a stark reminder of these exceptions and the hurdles faced when trying to qualify for them.
The exclusive remedy provision
The exclusive remedy provision of the North Carolina Workers’ Compensation Act is intended to benefit both employers and employees.
For employers, the provision limits their liability and provides some amount of predictability in dealing with workplace injuries. Rather than facing an uncertain and potentially costly lawsuit, employers can rely on a predefined compensation schedule, making it easier to budget for potential risks.
For employees, the provision typically means a quicker and more certain path to compensation for work-related injuries. Unlike tort claims, where the injured party must prove the employer’s negligence, workers’ compensation is a no-fault system. In other words, the injured worker simply, or not so simply as the case may be, needs to prove that their injury occurred in the course and scope of their employment.
The Rodney Baker case: A tragic incident with complex legal consequences
Rodney Baker died in 2020 while working for a North Carolina furniture products company called Dimension Wood Products.
Co-workers described hearing a strange noise as Rodney was cleaning around a running band saw machine. Soon after hearing the noise, Rodney’s co-workers found him on the ground with bruises on his back and lacerations on his chest. A subsequent medical report concluded that Rodney had been crushed between a moving part of the automated machine and a nearby steel girder.
Rodney’s widow was awarded full workers’ compensation benefits from the Industrial Commission: two-thirds of Rodney’s weekly wages for nine years, plus a $10,000 burial allowance.
Despite being awarded full workers’ compensation benefits, Rodney’s widow filed a lawsuit against the president of Dimension Wood Products as well as the company’s plant manager. The basis for the claim hinged on allegations that willful, wanton, reckless, or intentional acts were involved, which, if proven, would have allowed for an exception to the exclusive remedy provision.
More specifically, the attorney for Rodney’s widow argued that the plant manager knew about the hazards posed by the band saw but was too busy to complete the necessary fencing to keep employees safe. To this end, two sides of the rear of the band saw—where the table arm extends outward—were enclosed with fencing, but the third side was open (though ordinarily blocked by moveable barrels).
However, the court ultimately ruled that Rodney’s widow had not presented enough evidence to establish that a willful, wanton, or reckless act caused the fatal injury. The ruling underscores the high bar that plaintiffs must reach to qualify for an exception to the exclusive remedy.
“This case involves an undeniable tragedy,” wrote Appeals Court Judge Allison Riggs in the opinion. “We are cognizant of the heartbreak caused by Mr. Baker’s death and the ensuing pain endured by his family. But the State has guaranteed them some measure of recompense, however inadequate it may feel following the avoidable loss of a family member, through the guarantees of the Workers’ Compensation Act.”
Exceptions to the exclusive remedy provision
As briefly touched on above, the most notable exception to the exclusive remedy provision is when an employer intentionally engages in misconduct, knowing it is substantially certain to cause serious injury or death to an employee.
North Carolina courts have held that “intentional misconduct” includes reckless behavior and willful negligence, thus constituting a valid exception to the exclusive remedy under the workers’ compensation statute.
To put it another way, an injured worker must establish that their employer or co-worker’s wilful, wanton, or reckless actions caused their injury if they wish to sue the employer in lieu of filing a workers’ compensation claim.
The outcome of the Rodney Baker case illustrates the difficult path claimants face in proving exceptions to the exclusive remedy provision. In light of these challenges, it’s imperative that injured workers and their family members consult with an experienced workers’ compensation attorney who can guide them through the rocky path toward potential legal remedies.