In a very recent decision handed down by the Utah Supreme Court, the court has substantially limited the protections afforded to employers under the workers’ compensation statute.
This decision involved an industrial accident at a Chevron refinery near Salt Lake City. According to the facts of the written opinion, Chevron tried a new, less expensive method of neutralizing spent toxic sludge that backfired, causing a number of workers in the vicinity to fall ill.
Later the same day, reportedly without implementing any safety precautions, a supervisor sent another employee, Jenna Helf, who was unaware of the accident earlier that day, to try the open-air neutralization process again. The same noxious gas cloud erupted from the open pit, overpowering Helf and causing her to vomit and pass out. She suffered serious injuries from the accident and took her case to the Utah Labor Commission under the workers’ compensation umbrella. The commission awarded her $7,880.37 in temporary total disability pay and ordered Chevron to pay her medical bills.
Helf also sued Chevron in district court, arguing that her injuries resulted from its intentional misconduct. Chevron convinced the district court to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing that Utah’s workers’ compensation statute provided the only available relief and that its actions didn’t fall under the statute’s intentional injury exception.
The Utah Supreme Court overturned the district court’s dismissal, ruling that an employer has an “intent to injure” if it knew or expected that injury would occur as a consequence of its actions.
The underlying motive for the employer’s actions is irrelevant. If the employer intended the injury, i.e., knew or expected the injury would occur, its actions are intentional and the injured employee falls within the intentional injury exception. In sum, the Utah Supreme Court stated that an employee “may successfully plead an intentional injury by showing that the injury was either intended or expected.”
For more details on this landmark decision, check out the next issue of Utah Employment Law Letter. The newsletter’s attorney editors also urge you to discuss the impact of this important development with your insurance carriers.