employer can't be sued even when they knew workplace was unsafe

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Posted by Del on June 11, 1999 at 14:05:20:

This is yet another blatant reason why exclusive remedy is outright cruel. Exclusive Remedy must for the well-being of all workers to be ruled "unconstitutional" by our Supreme Court.

Unsafe Working Environment Leads Only to Workers Compensation Claim

A California Court of Appeal in June, 1996, continued the long-standing precedent that the exclusive remedy for workplace injuries is workers compensation. Even if the employer knew the workplace was unsafe, the court held, the employer could not be sued for personal injury damages.
Cynthia Purifoy, Kathleen King, Becky Allan and Vera Sanchez sued Hughes Aircraft Company seeking damages for work injuries incurred from exposure to various chemical substances while working at the Fullerton facility as office employees.

King and the other three plaintiffs whom she supervised worked in building 607, approximately 50 feet from the manufacturing department. In 1992, they began experiencing headaches, sore throats, fatigue, sinus problems, chest pain and voice loss. In February 1993, King returned to work after suffering from a respiratory illness. Within a few hours, she again began coughing and experiencing difficulty in breathing.

King contacted John Gallucci at Hughes' health and safety department. After confirming she worked near the manufacturing division, Gallucci told her there had been similar complaints from other employees whose work stations were also in that area. It was alleged that in 1993, Hughes was aware that 291 employees in building 607/617 were complaining of headaches, sore throat, lightheadedness, shortness of breath, nasal congestion, chest pain, cough, palpitations and watery eyes.

King then reported her injuries to the company's medical center. Hughes did not advise King or any of the other plaintiffs about their work environment or the cause of their injuries. However, after the plaintiffs requested their offices be moved, King, Allan and Sanchez were relocated to building 617 until March 5, when they were told to return to building 607. They were advised their former offices were safe because cooling towers had been drained and, after an excessive amount of certain chemicals was found, had been filled with clean water.

This did not prove to be an adequate solution. The plaintiffs' health continued to decline. King and Purifoy sought emergency room treatment for respiratory distress. Purifoy was placed on disability and diagnosed with asthma, upper airway irritation and dysphonia. Allan also got worse. On April 22, she complained to the Hughes Medical Center of headaches and burning eyes. She was told to take a walk outside if the headaches continued.

The court held that the plaintiffs could not sue for damages, but instead their exclusive remedy was workers compensation.

If the unsafe conditions were life threatening, the individual managers at Hughes could be held criminally liable. In other words, they could go to jail. Thus, it is not recommended that managers deliberately ignore unsafe conditions.

Contrary to the above I do believe there's been some rulings since 1996 on this that were favorable to workers though exclusive remedy is pretty much the law of the land.

For excerpts of this case, see: Unsafe Working Environment Leads Only to Workers Compensation Claim.

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