Recently, the New Jersey Supreme Court strictly interpreted the state workers’ compensation statute, thereby severely limiting an employee’s ability to sue his employer for injuries sustained in the workplace. Kenneth Van Dunk worked for James Construction Company, Inc. as a laborer. In August 2004, James assigned Van Dunk to assist with a construction project in which the company was excavating an outdoor trench. During a heavy thunderstorm, Van Dunk’s project manager asked him to enter the trench to rearrange fabric that had become tangled during the downpour. While in the trench, the wall caved in and buried Van Dunk, causing him multiple injuries.
In August 2006, Van Dunk filed a lawsuit against James seeking damages for the injuries he sustained in the trench collapse. The trial court dismissed the suit, holding that the New Jersey Workers’ Compensation Act precluded Van Dunk’s tort claims because he could not show that James’ conduct constituted an intentional wrongdoing. The Appellate Division reversed, finding that Van Dunk presented sufficient evidence to sustain a tort action.
The Supreme Court reversed, favoring a more strict interpretation of the “intentional wrongdoing” requirement. The court explained that the New Jersey Workers’ Compensation Act requires an employer’s insurance carrier to effectuate quick and exact payment, regardless of fault, to employees who sustain workplace injuries. The Act, however, precludes employees from initiating private lawsuits unless the workplace injury was the result of an “intentional wrong” committed by the employer. The court held that the employer’s conduct must create “a virtual certainty that bodily injury or death will result.” James’ conduct did not create such a situation for Van Dunk. Therefore, the court reversed in favor of the employer.
The Appellate Division’s decision, if upheld, would have invited an influx of workplace injury litigation. Conversely, the Supreme Court’s decision will greatly reduce corporate legal exposure to workplace injury lawsuits. Companies can breathe easy, knowing that workers’ compensation remains the only viable avenue for employees to recover damages sustained from a workplace injury, absent an intentional wrong.