Ohio: Failure of Safety Equipment Not Enough to Hold Employer Liable for Intentional Tort

By SHRM Online staff
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The Ohio Supreme Court found that an intentional tort claim brought pursuant to Ohio law (R.C. 2745.01) requires proof of the employers deliberate intent to cause injury to an employee. The failure of an equipment safety guard is not sufficient by itself to show such intent. There must be evidence that an employer made a careful and thorough decision to get rid of or eliminate an equipment safety guard.

Pro-Pak Industries Inc. manufactures corrugated containers, boxes, and packaging materials. Within its facility are conveyor lines that carry materials on rollers throughout the plant and manually operated transfer cars that run on fixed pathways perpendicular to the conveyor lines in order to transfer materials to other areas of the facility.

On July 2, 2008, Phillip Pixley, a plant maintenance worker, was struck by a transfer car operated by another employee, Jonathan Dudzik, and suffered serious injuries to his right leg from his knee to his ankle, damage to tendons and tissue, and fractures and chips to bones. The accident did not trigger the shut-off mechanism in the transfer car’s safety bumper, and Dudzik manually stopped the transfer car after he realized it had struck Pixley.

The next morning, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) investigated the incident, photographing and video-recording the operation of the transfer car. In the OSHA investigators presence, a Pro-Pak employee drove the transfer car, and when Frank Smith, Pro-Paks plant superintendent, pushed the bumper on the transfer car, the bumper collapsed and the car stopped. Smith repeated this test multiple times at various points along the transfer cars pathway, and each time the safety mechanism functioned properly and stopped the car.

On June 23, 2010, Pixley brought an employer intentional tort claim against Pro-Pak, alleging that it had not adequately trained its transfer car operator and had deliberately bypassed the transfer cars safety bumper, causing the shut-off mechanism to fail. Pro-Pak moved for summary judgment, urging that Pixley could not show that they had deliberately intended to injure him and asserting that he had placed himself in harms way. The trial court granted summary judgment, explaining that Pixley “failed to create a genuine issue of material fact that Pro-Pak had the ‘specific intentto injure him” and “limiting the definition of ‘equipment safety equipmentto items designed to protect the ‘operator.’ ” Pixley filed an appeal.

The appellate court found that the deliberate removal by an employer of an equipment safety guard created a rebuttable presumption that the employer acted with the intent to injure another. Although it recognized that Hewitt v. L.E. Myers Co., 134 Ohio St. 3d 199, (Nov. 20, 2012), defined “equipment safety guard” to mean “‘a device designed to shield the operator from exposure to or injury by a dangerous aspect of the equipment,’” the appellate court determined that the definition should not be limited to protecting operators only. Finding that a genuine issue of material fact existed regarding whether Pro-Pak had deliberately bypassed the safety bumper, the appellate court reversed and remanded the matter to the trial court. Pixley appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court.

The supreme court considered two propositions of law: (1) whether the definition of equipment safety guard is limited to protecting operators, and (2) whether the deliberate removal of an equipment safety guard occurs only when there is evidence that the employer made a deliberate decision to lift, push aside, take off or otherwise eliminate the guard from the machine.

The two propositions of law relate to whether the definition of an equipment safety guard is limited to devices designed to shield the operator of the machine from exposure to injury by a dangerous aspect of the equipment and whether the record established a genuine issue of material fact that an intentional tort occurred. The supreme court only addressed the second issue presented, because it is dispositive of this appeal.

The high court explained that Ohio law (R.C. 2745.01) limits claims against employers for intentional torts to circumstances demonstrating a deliberate intent to cause injury to an employee. The court noted that the deliberate removal by an employer of an equipment safety guard creates a rebuttable presumption that the removal was committed with intent to injure another if an injury or an occupational disease or condition occurs as a direct result. However, according to the supreme court, the failure of an equipment safety guard is not sufficient by itself to raise the rebuttable presumption that the employer intended to injure another; rather, “the ‘deliberate removalreferred to in R.C. 2745.01(C) may be described as a careful and thorough decision to get rid of or eliminate an equipment safety guard.”

Even if there were a factual dispute concerning the operation of the safety bumper on the day of the accident, there is no evidence showing that Pro- Pak deliberately removed it or otherwise caused it to fail. Pixley does not point to any physical or scientific evidence of tampering, nor has he presented any evidence that anyone at Pro-Pak made a decision to disable or eliminate the safety bumper.

Because there is no evidence that Pro-Pak deliberately removed or disabled the safety bumper on the transfer car or that it deliberately intended to cause injury, the supreme court found Pixley has failed to establish an intentional tort claim. The court held that the trial court correctly granted summary judgment and reversed the judgment of the appellate court. Also, because Pixley could not establish the existence of an intentional tort in this case, the high court did not need to decide the issue of whether the definition of an equipment safety guard is limited to devices shielding only operators from exposure to injury by a dangerous aspect of the equipment.

Pixley v. Pro-Pak Indus., Inc., Ohio, No. 5460 (Dec. 18, 2014).

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