Defective Safety Devices Can Lead to Liability Under an Employer Intentional Tort Claim

Even with the significant protections set forth in Ohio Revised Code Section 2745.01, employers still face potential liability in an intentional tort action if a safety device malfunctions or is disconnected.  Subsections (A) and (B) of the statute establish that an employer can only be held liable for an intentional tort if it acted with the specific intent to injure the employee.  However, subsection (C) creates an exception to this general rule.  The statute creates a rebuttable presumption that the acts of the employer were committed with the intent to injure the employee if it is shown that the employer removed an “equipment safety guard”.  According to the Sixth Appellate District, an “equipment safety guard” can also include any device that is designed to shield a dangerous aspect of a piece of equipment from employees who are expected to work in or around that piece of equipment and not just the operator.  Pixley v. Pro-Pak Industries, Inc. (C.A. 6 2013), No. L-12-1177.

In Pixley, the plaintiff was injured when he was struck by another employee operating a transfer car at a manufacturing facility.  The transfer car was equipped with a safety bumper that was designed to shut off power if an object was struck or bumped by the transfer car.  Unfortunately, even though Mr. Pixley’s body struck the bumper, it did not stop the transfer car until it had run him over.

Mr. Pixley filed an employer intentional tort action under O.R.C. 2745.01 against Pro-Pak.  After some initial discovery, Pro-Pak moved for summary judgment arguing that Mr. Pixley failed to show that it deliberately intended to injure him.  Mr. Pixley opposed the motion by relying upon subsection (C), arguing that the safety bumper had been deliberately removed or disconnected causing his accident.  In support, he relied on affidavits and reports from two experts who concluded that the safety bumper was designed such that the only way the bumper could have failed was if the electrical switch inside the bumper had been deliberately bypassed.  The trial court disagreed and held that because the bumper did not shield the operator of the equipment from exposure, it could not be considered an “equipment safety guard.” Therefore, the trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Pro-Pak.

Upon appeal, the Sixth Appellate District reversed the trial court’s decision and remanded the case back for trial.  The Court held that based upon the Ohio Supreme Court’s recent decision in Beary v. Larry Murphy Dump Truck Serv., Inc., an “equipment safety guard” does not necessarily have to address only safety concerns for the operator of a particular piece of equipment.  The device can be designed to also protect other employees who work on or around the equipment.  In this instance, the bumper could be considered a safety device because it could have prevented injuries to other employees struck by the car.  There was also some evidence presented that the bumper on the transfer car had malfunctioned and that the malfunction could have been the result of a deliberate attempt to disconnect the safety device.  Therefore, a material issue of fact existed in the case to require a denial of summary judgment for the employer.

The Pixley case serves as another warning to employers that whenever a safety device malfunctions and causes an accident, some intentional tort liability could arise.  This is true even if the safety device is not designed to protect the operator of the machine.

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