Workplace Accidents, Employer Liability and ‘Deliberate Intent’ – Cunningham v. Felman Production

In West Virginia, an employer typically can’t be sued for injuries sustained by workers on the job if those injuries are otherwise covered by the employer’s workers’ compensation insurance plan. State law makes an exception to this rule, however, in cases where the employer is found to have deliberately exposed a worker to the hazard that caused the injury. As the state Supreme Court recently explained, a worker seeking to apply the “deliberate intent” exception has to show that the employer actually knew of the specific danger and nevertheless exposed the worker to it.

gavel-5-1409595-m.jpgMs. Cunningham was injured in an accident on the job while working for Felman as occupational safety and health specialist at the company’s Letart plant. She was working in her office when she received a call alerting her about a fire in an industrial-sized dumpster. After grabbing a fire extinguisher, Cunningham proceeded to the dumpster. She and three or four other plant employees were trying to put the fire out when another worker approached with an end loader, which he used to dump a bucket of water on the dumpster. This caused an explosion, during which Cunningham suffered burns and a back strain that landed her in the hospital overnight. It was later determined that the dumpster had traces of flammable substances in it that caused the explosion when they contacted the water.

Cunningham sued Felman for the injuries, arguing that the company should be held responsible under the “deliberate intent” exemption. A trial court granted summary judgment to Felman, however.

Affirming the decision on appeal, the Supreme Court said Cunningham failed to prove that the company knew about the specific threat of explosion. The Court explained that an employer’s actual knowledge of a threat “is not satisfied merely by evidence that the employer reasonably should have known of the specific unsafe working condition and of the strong probability of serious injury or death presented by that condition.” Instead, according to the Court, the injured worker “must establish that respondent actually possessed such knowledge.” While a property owner may otherwise be liable for injuries sustained as a result of hazards that the owner should have known about, such “constructive knowledge” isn’t enough to waive workers’ compensation immunity for employment-related injuries.

Since Felman wasn’t actually aware of the danger in this case, the Court further found that it could not have intentionally exposed Cunningham to the hazard. “Merely directing an employee to work in the area where an unsafe condition exists is not enough,” the Court explained. “[T]he employer must direct the employee to work in the area of the unsafe condition with conscious awareness of the unsafe working condition.”

If you or a loved one has been injured in an accident on the job, the Wolfe Law Firm can help. Our West Virginia work injury lawyers have been serving clients throughout the state for more than 25 years. Located in Elkins, West Virginia, the firm represents clients in a wide range of injury, criminal defense, and bankruptcy matters. Call us at 1-877-637-5756 or contact us online for a free consultation.

Related blog posts:

West Virginia Workers’ Compensation Claims and the ‘Zone of Employment’ – Commissioner v. Brewer

Conflicting Stories and “Obvious” Danger Don’t Keep Injured West Virginia Worker from Jury Trial – Kruis v. Allmine Paving

West Virginia Court Explains Negligence, Property Owner Liability in Hotel Slip and Fall Case – McNeilly v. Greenbrier Hotel Corporation