The Court of Appeals handed down a unanimous decision in favor of defendants in a purported Woodson claim July 21, 2020. Below is a quick synopsis of the case. Kudos to Heather Connor and Christopher Campbell of McAngus, Goudelock & Courie, as well as the late Michael Gibson of Dean & Gibson for helping to hold the line against another run by the plaintiff’s bar at Woodson.
Hidalgo v. Erosion Control Services
(Court of Appeals - Published – 21 July 2020)
Facts: The decedent employee was killed on July 20, 2016 when the tractor he was driving rolled over on a slope. The employee was ejected from the cab and killed when the tractor rolled on top of him. The evidence showed the employer ECS had replaced the seat on the tractor a year before with one that did not have a seatbelt.
The employee’s estate filed a civil complaint against ECS and its owners. Defendants filed a Motion for Summary Judgment on the grounds that workers’ compensation was the exclusive remedy for workplace injuries. The estate countered that the Woodson exception applied because: (1) the employer replaced the seat without a seatbelt; (2) the tractor was on a slope where it was certain to roll over; and (3) the employer did not train the employee on the risks of driving on such a slope.
The trial court denied ESC’s Motion, but the Court of Appeals reversed and ruled that workers’ compensation was the exclusive remedy for the employee’s death.
Reasoning: The Court of Appeals began with a discussion of Woodson. In Woodson, an employee was directly instructed by the employer to work in a trench without proper slope protection. The trench collapsed and buried him alive. That employer had several prior OSHA citations for the same issue, and other contractors on the site had prohibited their workers from getting in the trench. The Supreme Court held the employer could be sued in civil court because his actions were so intentional and egregious that they were tantamount to committing an intentional tort against the employee, which is not protected by the rule of exclusivity.
The Court of Appeals then explained the Woodson exception is extremely narrow. It only applies when the uncontroverted evidence shows that the employer intentionally engaged in actions that were substantially certain to result in death or serious bodily injury. Mere negligence, carelessness, or even unsafe actions on the part of the employer are not enough to qualify for the Woodson exception.
In this case, the Court noted the employer did not know the replacement seat he ordered did not come with a seatbelt. The employer himself was not present when the seat was installed, and the tractor had been used for a year without a seatbelt with no injuries. The employer also never directed the employee to drive on the slope where the accident occurred. In fact, no one could explain why the employee was driving on that slope, since it was not a part of the project on which they were working. Therefore, the evidence did not show intentional actions by the employer meeting the Woodson standard.