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The Flaming Pig and New Jersey Workers’ Compensation

Imagine this: You are working as a server at a wedding hall in northern New Jersey when your boss tells you that you are on flaming pig duty that night.  You and a young co-worker, who have never flambéed anything in your lives, proceed to wheel a flaming pig into the wedding hall.  All of the sudden, your co-worker goes a little overboard with the grain alcohol that is fueling the fire and you are engulfed in flames.  The accident leaves you with permanent scars on your hand, arm, abdomen, and thigh.  Your employer’s Workers’ Compensation insurance carrier pays your medical bills, temporary disability, and an award for your permanent injuries.

In this scenario, do you think that you should be allowed to sue your employer for damages that are not available under the Workers’ Compensation system such as pain and suffering or loss of consortium?  In September of 2013, an Appellate Court in New Jersey decided a case with this set of facts, and found that the employee was barred from suing her employer in New Jersey Superior Court.

The Workers’ Compensation Bar

Generally, in New Jersey, a worker is barred from suing their employer outside of the Workers’ Compensation system.  This is because the enactment of the Workers' Compensation Law in New Jersey was an historic tradeoff whereby employees relinquished their right to pursue common law remedies in exchange for automatic entitlements to benefits for work-related injuries.  As a result the Workers' Compensation Law provides an exclusive avenue by which an employee who was injured at work can recover from his employer.  However, if an employee can prove an “intentional wrong,” he may be able to sue his employer outside of the Workers’ Compensation system.

The Test for an Intentional Wrong

First, an employee must prove that the employer knowingly exposed the employee to a substantial certainty of injury.  A probability or knowledge that injury or death could result is insufficient.  Examples from cases where courts have found this element satisfied are: an employer’s affirmative action to remove a safety device, prior OSHA citations, deliberate deceit regarding the condition of the workplace, knowledge of prior injury or accidents, and previous complaints from employees.  Second, the resulting injury must not be a fact of life of industrial employment and must be plainly beyond anything legislature intended the act to immunize.

In finding no “intentional wrong” in the case of the flaming pig, the Court did not find a substantial certainty of injury.  There were no prior accidents or complaints that the employer failed to address as the catering company had never performed the flaming pig ceremony before.  The court also found that burns are an expected injury in the restaurant or catering business.

If you or anyone you know has been injured on the job, please contact one of the Workers’ Compensation attorneys at Hoffman DiMuzio to see if we can assist you with your claim.  The “intentional harm” exception is a tough test to pass, but if after evaluating your case we feel your case meets the requirements discussed above, we may pursue additional remedies in state court in addition to handling your traditional workers’ compensation claim.

Brian Hall is an Associate with the Law Firm of Hoffman DiMuzio, a full service law firm with offices in Woodbury, Turnersville, Franklinville, Mullica Hill, and Sewell, NJ.  Brian practices primarily in the areas of Workers’ Compensation, Social Security, and Employment Law.

Photo via Flickr courtesy of Kenny Louie

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