In a workplace accident case where plaintiff suffered seven figure injuries to her hand when it became entrapped in a commercial conveyor system, summary judgment was obtained for the workplace owner under the “special employer” doctrine. The Court further agreed that there was no basis for an intentional wrong claim against the client.
The plaintiff was working at our client’s food processing facility when she reached into the open end of a guard that covered an end roller on a conveyor system. Her hand was pulled between the rotating belt and around the roller, causing extensive fractures and disfigurement with nearly a half million dollars in medical treatment incurred.
The plaintiff was working at the client’s facility through a staffing agency. The agency paid the plaintiff’s wages and provided workers’ compensation benefits to her. In her complaint, the plaintiff asserted that she was an employee of the staffing agency and not our client. She pleaded that our client was negligent for having unsafe and dangerous equipment in its plant. Plaintiff also pursued product liability claims against the manufacturer of the machine.
Throughout the litigation, plaintiff insisted that her only employer was the staffing agency because she had a contract of employment with it, she acted as driver for the agency by taking other workers to and from the plant and because the agency maintained an office at the client’s location.
Other discovery revealed that plaintiff was under the direction and control of the client’s supervisors when she reported to work at the plant each day, that she was instructed what to do and how to do it by the supervisors, and that the client had the right to hire and fire the staffing company’s placements as needed. The staffing company, although it had an office on–site, only used it for human resources purposes and had no involvement with directing or controlling the actual work at the facility.
The conveyor system manufacturer, in defending plaintiff’s product liability claim against it, served an expert report that claimed that our client removed a part of the machine that would have prevented plaintiff’s hand from entering the guarded end roller.
Under the “special employment” doctrine, an employee can have two employers at the same time and if the employee receives Workers’ Compensation benefits from either, she cannot pursue common law negligence claims against them. Attorney Bryan moved for summary judgment at the conclusion of discovery arguing that the client was indeed a special employer under the applicable control test. While the plaintiff was paid wages and benefits by the staffing agency, she was under the control of the client and doing the client’s work when she was injured. Because she received Workers’ Compensation benefits from the staffing agency, it was argued that her claims of negligence were barred by the exclusivity provisions of the Workers’ Compensation Act.
In opposition to the motion, plaintiff argued that the control test for special employment was not met, and alternatively, that if the client was found to be a special employer, that the removal of a part from the machine before the accident constituted an “intentional wrong” which permits direct suit by the employee.
Under the applicable case precedence, attorney Bryan successfully argued that all five factors of the control test for special employment were met and that the client was plaintiff’s special employer at the time of her accident. Further, attorney Bryan convinced the Court that the mere fact that a part, which was not a “guard” was removed from the machine prior to the accident could never prove an intentional wrong claim against an employer without additional facts that did not exist in this matter. The Court, in agreeing with the defense argument, dismissed plaintiff’s claims and the cross-claims of the co-defendant manufacturer with prejudice.
Staffing agencies are commonplace in industry today and the nature of their relationship with their clients and level of involvement with any work being performed can give rise to claims. These claims are fact sensitive and require an understanding of the law before discovery is commenced. Likewise, the defense of “intentional wrong” claims against employers in New Jersey can be fraught with hazard if there is a lack of clear understanding of what the claim is and why the cause of action exists.
Richard C. Bryan Esq. is a Partner in the firm’s Mount Laurel office and can be reached at (856) 761-3800 or by email at Rbryan@c-wlaw.com.