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Tort/Negligence – Workers’ Compensation – Wrongful Death – Pleasant Claim – Insufficient Forecast

Tort/Negligence – Workers’ Compensation – Wrongful Death – Pleasant Claim – Insufficient Forecast

Plaintiff’s decedent died while cleaning his bandsaw machine at work. After receiving workers’ compensation benefits, plaintiff also sought to hold the defendant-operations manager liable. While it is true that the employer did not block access to the area in which the decedent was killed and that the defendant-operations manager said – if the decedent had been caught between his machine’s table arm and steel beam – he would have been cut in half, it is also true that the decedent suffered blunt force trauma to his chest, the medical examiner concluded he was crushed between the table arm and the steel support beam (though the decedent was of adult height and the table arm was only three feet high), there had been no prior accidents involving the machine, and the employer ran an award-winning safety program.

Plaintiff’s forecast of evidence is insufficient to show the operations manager engaged in willful, wanton or reckless negligence. We reverse the trial court’s denial of his motion for summary judgment.

The uncontroverted evidence establishes that employer Dimension Wood Products operated an award-winning safety program, which included quarterly safety briefings; the decedent attended just such a program in the weeks before the accident, where Dimension explicitly instructed staff to “BE SURE TO TURN MACHINES OFF AND MAKE SURE THEY COME TO A COMPLETE STOP BEFORE BENDING OVER AND CLEANING AROUND MACHINERY.” Dimension trained the decedent on the machine and its predecessor and made all employees aware of the danger of stepping into the area where the decedent was killed.

During a combined 15 years of operation, all of which occurred during the decedent’s employment (1) nobody was injured on the machine or its predecessor; (2) OSHA issued no violations related to the same, and (3) Dimension received no safety complaints from staff about the decedent’s bandsaws. In fact, Dimension received no serious OSHA violations, had no serious injuries, and maintained a “Days Away, Restricted, or Transferred” rate below the national average for the entire three years preceding the accident.

All evidence in the record indicated, without dispute, that the operations manager did not ask or instruct the decedent to clean around the machine. And, though ultimately insufficient to prevent the decedent’s accidental death, Dimension did make some attempt to cordon off and limit access to the rear of the machine.

Plaintiff argues that willful, wanton, and reckless negligence is established by three facts: (1) the operations manager knew of the hazard presented by the machine because employees were told in safety trainings to stay clear of machines’ moving parts while in operation; (2) the operations manager knew the machine posed a life-threatening hazard because he told the decedent’s family after the accident that someone caught between the machine’s lower table arm and nearby pillar would be cut in half; and (3) plant management, based on the OSHA report, was aware of the fatal danger posed by the machine but were too busy to complete the necessary fencing.

While plaintiff’s evidentiary forecast may show that the operations manager knew of the potential fatal danger posed by the machine, all the other evidence in the record shows that Dimension and the operations manager attempted to share that knowledge with the decedent to reduce the risk of accident.

Reversed and remanded.

Baker v. Reinhardt (Lawyers Weekly No. 011-066-23, 22 pp.) (Allison Riggs, J.) Appealed from Catawba County Superior Court (Alan Thornburg, J.) David Hood for plaintiff; David Coats, David Wise and Devon Collins for defendant. North Carolina Court of Appeals


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