N.M.: Employer’s Negligence Entitles Worker to Higher Comp Award

By SHRM Online staff Dec 31, 2014
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An employee was entitled to a 10 percent increase in worker’s compensation benefits because her employer failed to ensure that a safety device, in this case a “wet floor” sign, was properly used, the New Mexico Supreme Court ruled.

Sara L. Benavides, a registered nurse working for Eastern New Mexico Medical Center, slipped and fell on a wet floor in the medical center and sustained compensable injuries in 2006. She began receiving temporary total disability benefits at the maximum rate for a 2006 injury.

In 2011, the medical center filed a complaint seeking a determination of permanent partial disability benefits and maximum medical improvement. Benavides filed an amended answer and counterclaim requesting, among other things, a 10 percent increase in benefits due to a failure to supply a safety device pursuant to the New Mexico’s worker’s compensation law.

When a worker’s injury “results from the negligence of the employer failing to supply reasonable safety devices in general use for the use or protection of the worker,” New Mexico law provides that a worker’s benefits shall be increased by 10 percent. Benavides claimed that “wet floor” signs are safety devices and because they were not posted around the patient’s room where she fell, she was entitled to an increase in benefits. The medical center denied the claim. A full evidentiary hearing before a worker’s compensation judge was held.

The administrative judge entered a compensation order finding that “wet floor” signs were safety devices, and that the medical center did supply “wet floor” signs but that they were not deployed as they should have been. Nevertheless, the judge concluded in his compensation order that the medical center provided all the appropriate safety devices, as required by statute, or in general use, and that increased benefits were inappropriate. An appellate court upheld the judge’s decision so Benavides sought review by the New Mexico Supreme Court.

Benavides argued that a “wet floor” sign was a safety device because its purpose is to warn of a potential danger or hazard. Her former employer responded that signs promote safety, which is different from an actual safety device, such as a machine guard.

The high court concluded that a safety device is something specific and tangible that prevents a specific danger; however, course of conduct, rules, and ordinary hand tools are not safety devices. It also found that a “wet floor” sign is a safety device because it is a tangible device that lessens a specific danger and helps to keep workers safe.

New Mexico’s workers compensation law also requires that the safety device be in “general use,” which the court explained means “prevalent, usual, extensive though not universal, wide spread.” The court concluded that safety devices cannot effectuate their purpose if they are kept in utility closets or in storage. They must be supplied and used to prevent accidents. The high court stated that New Mexico law imposes a responsibility on the employer to ensure that safety devices are supplied and properly employed.

The supreme court ruled that the medical center cannot be said to have supplied wet floor signs just because they were available to the custodians. It should have ensured that such safety devices were properly employed to avoid accidents such as the one Benavides had. It, therefore, awarded Benavides a 10 percent increase in her benefits.

Benavides v. Eastern N.M. Med. Ctr., N.M., No. 34,128 (Nov. 6, 2014).

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