HR Management & Compliance

Case Study: Can Supervisors Be Personally Liable for Untrained Employees’ Injuries?

Fran Bryant worked the third shift as a press operator. One morning around 3 o’clock, her supervisor, Bill Carey, asked her to run some parts for a rush job. To do the job, Bryant had to leave her machine and work on another piece of equipment, a large secondary press. This press was activated by a foot pedal. When the pedal was depressed, a ram head came down with considerable force on the press bed and formed a piece of metal into a part.

From the first piece she ran, Bryant noticed that when she stepped on the foot pedal, the ram head seemed to stick or lag as it came down on the metal piece. Bryant notified Carey that the machine wasn’t working right. Carey took a look and noticed a bolt that appeared to be loose.

As Bryant watched, Cary grabbed a wrench and tightened the bolt. Then he told Bryant to depress the foot pedal to initiate the press cycle. The ram head cycled down, struck and bent the metal part that was lying in the press bed, and moved back up. Bryant removed the finished part, replaced it with a new piece of metal, and depressed the foot pedal again.


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Although the machine appeared to be working better, Bryant told Carey she thought it still wasn’t right. He told her to cycle the machine again. This time when she reached in to remove the formed part, the ram head dropped down while her hand was still in the danger zone and severed four fingers.

Bryant not only collected workers’ compensation for her injury but also sued her supervisor personally for negligence.

In court, Carey admitted that he wasn’t trained to repair machines. It was also revealed that affixed to the machine at the time of Bryant’s injury was a yellow warning sign that stated, “Never Install Dies or Service This Machine with the Flywheel in Motion and/or the Motor On.”

Furthermore, when Carey’s boss took the stand, she explained the procedure for dealing with machine malfunctions: “If a machine is defective or we feel that it may have a problem, basically we shut it down and call maintenance and they will come over as quickly as possible and evaluate the problem and confer with the supervisor.” When asked if this is what Carey should have done on the morning of the accident, his supervisor replied, “I would assume that he should have called maintenance, yes.”

Despite this evidence, the court dismissed the negligence case against Carey. Bryant appealed.

Decision

There are sufficient grounds to find that the supervisor’s negligent acts resulted in the employee’s injury, ruled the Missouri Court of Appeals. By making unauthorized repairs and by directing the employee to continue to use a malfunctioning machine that a reasonable person would have recognized as potentially hazardous, the supervisor breached his duty to help keep his employees safe on the job.


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Comment

Never exceed your authority or try to perform a function you are not trained and authorized to do—even when you’re under the gun to get a rush job done. Always follow established procedures for equipment repairs and other jobs that require technical know-how and special training. If you overstep your authority and create a hazardous condition for an employee, a court could say, as this one did, that your actions constitute a breach of personal duty of care owed to the employee. And such actions could make you personally liable for negligence if the employee is injured as a result.

In tomorrow’s Advisor, we look at another case of supervisor liability, plus we share information on an effective online training resource of prewritten courses on dozens of key safety topics.