Boston Personal Injury Lawyer, the attorney, analyzes a recent Appeals Court decision pertaining to double penalties under the Worken’s Compensation Act.
The case involves a store employee who suffered serious personal injuries after falling through a trap door in the floor of a floral shop, the Massachusetts Appeals Court has reversed a decision by the Department of Industrial Accidents reviewing board that awarded an employee double compensation (under Mass. G.L. c. 152, § 28), finding that the employee’s injury was due to the serious and wilful misconduct of the employer. The Appeals Court determined that the record did not support a finding that the employer’s conduct rose to the level of a wanton and reckless disregard for safety.
The employee was working at a floral shop on Valentines day in 1991 when she fell into a trap-door floor opening, which covered a set of stairs leading down to the cellar. She fell into the hole sustaining serious personal injuries. The floor door measured approximately eight feet by three feet, and qualified as a “floor opening”, which made it subject to the state and federal regulations, and certain mandatory safeguards.
The employer was not aware of the regulations, and instead relied on its own warning system of orange safety cones and chains to warn and protect the employees. However, the system was only used sporadically, and was not in place on the day of the accident. There was also some evidence that there may have been insufficient floor space in the area of the trap door due to the placement of a table for completed work orders. There was also evidence that because it was Valentine’s day, the work pace in the store was much heavier than normal.
The administrative judge had found that, by failing to install the required railings called for under state regulations, which would have prevented the employee from falling into the opening. The judge found that the employee’s injury was causally connected to the lack of safeguards when the door was open.
The Appeals Court disagreed, and engaged in a detailed analysis of prior decisions in the state, drawing a clear distinction between instances where an employer ordered its employees to engage in dangerous work, after being put on specific notice of the existence of the dangerous condition, but consciously ignored the warning, and those where there was a potential hazard, for which the employer attempted security precautions, which proved to be inadequate.
Here, the Court found that the employer’s precautions were indeed inadequate and enforcement was insufficient and proved ineffective. Said the Court “[t]his conduct can certainly be characterized as negligence or gross negligence. But our cases do not support a determination that the employer acted with wanton and reckless disregard for the consequences or engaged in behavior that was quasi-criminal in nature. The reviewing board’s decision was arbitrary and capricious in the sense of not having adequate evidentiary and factual support.”
Comment: The Appeals Court in this case has drawn a clear line between what it considers to be specific and conscious disregard for employee safety, and those instances where the conduct is perhaps is perhaps reckless and foolish, but not malicious. The message, however, is clear. Where there exist state or federal regulations pertaining to employee safety, an employer takes grave risks by not learning what are those requirements, and strictly following them. The employer in this case got a pass, which may be viewed as a