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Plaintiff’s Claim For Intentional Harm Survives Motion To Dismiss Made By Defendant

By on November 18, 2011 in Compensability with 0 Comments

The exclusive remedy provision is a powerful one in New Jersey.  It is the rare case where a plaintiff successfully proves intentional harm.  Nonetheless, a well-plead complaint will often survive a motion to dismiss as is shown in Blackshear v. Syngenta Crop Protection., et. al. 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 125505 (D.N.J. October 31, 2011). 

The facts are fairly straightforward:  plaintiff Jeanette Blackshear filed suit on her own behalf and as administrator of her late husband’s estate and as guardian ad litem for her minor children.  She claimed that her husband was exposed to toxic chemicals while working as an exterminator for Corbett Exterminating, which exposures allegedly caused his death.  To overcome the exclusive remedy provision of the New Jersey Workers’ Compensation Act, her complaint alleged that Corbett knew and intentionally concealed “the hazardous nature of or the extent of the hazardous nature of the chemicals that decedent used in his work.”

Further aspects of the complaint contained allegations that Corbett knew the risk inherent in the use of the chemicals, failed to disclose that risk to decedent, and failed to supply him with certain safety equipment.  In support of her complaint plaintiff attached a certification regarding her husband’s death, Material Safety Data Sheets, and expert reports showing a link between exposure to chemicals and her husband’s fatal illness. 

The District Court reviewed the leading cases dealing with the standards on intentional harm in New Jersey, including Laidlow v. Hariton Mach. Co., Inc. 170 N.J. 602 (2002).  This case establishes both a conduct and context prong for evaluating intentional harm cases. 

The plaintiff’s complaint met the first prong dealing with conduct, according to the court, because the pleadings sufficiently alleged that Corbett knew that exposure to chemicals in the workplace were substantially certain to lead to the illness and death of the decedent.

The plaintiff’s complaint met the second prong as well, which requires that “the resulting injury and the circumstances of its infliction on the worker must be (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 at 617. The court scrutinized the complaint, which alleged that Corbett withheld information about the risks of harm from the decedent and failed to provide him with safety devices.  “Taken as true, this allegation indicates not only that Corbett turned a blind eye to the risks inherent in the use of the chemicals but actually went as far as to hide those risks so that decedent would not know they existed.  Such concealment is hardly an expected fact of life in industrial employment, and accordingly, this court finds that it is not the type of risk that the New Jersey Legislature likely envisioned as being barred under the Workers’ Compensation Act.”

It is important to understand that this case did not deal with the merits of the case at all. It simply focused on the attempt by the defendant to dismiss the complaint at the initial stage of the litigation as being barred by the exclusivity provision of the New Jersey Workers’ Compensation Act.  The court denied the defendant’s motion to dismiss.  Whether the plaintiff can prove her case remains to be seen.

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About the Author

About the Author:

John H. Geaney, a shareholder and co-chair of Capehart Scatchard's Workers' Compensation department, began an email newsletter entitled Currents in Workers’ Compensation, ADA and FMLA in 2001 in order to keep clients and readers informed on leading developments in these three areas of law. Since that time he has written over 500 newsletter updates.

Mr. Geaney is the author of Geaney’s New Jersey Workers’ Compensation Manual for Practitioners, Adjusters & Employers. The manual is distributed by the New Jersey Institute for Continuing Legal Education (NJICLE). He also authored an ADA and FMLA manual as distributed by NJICLE. If you are interested in purchasing the manual, please contact NJICLE at 732-214-8500 or visit their website at www.njicle.com.

Mr. Geaney represents employers in the defense of workers’ compensation, ADA and FMLA matters. He is a Fellow of the College of Workers’ Compensation Lawyers of the American Bar Association and is certified by the Supreme Court of New Jersey as a workers’ compensation law attorney. He is one of two firm representatives to the National Workers’ Compensation Defense Network. He has served on the Executive Committee of Capehart Scatchard for over ten (10) years.

A graduate of Holy Cross College summa cum laude, Mr. Geaney obtained his law degree from Boston College Law School. He has been named a “Super Lawyer” by his peers and Law and Politics. He serves as Vice President of the Friends of MEND, the fundraising arm of a local charitable organization devoted to promoting affordable housing.

Capehart Scatchard is a full service law firm with offices in Mt. Laurel and Trenton, New Jersey. The firm represents employers and businesses in a wide variety of areas, including workers’ compensation, civil litigation, labor, environmental, business, estates and governmental affairs.

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