In the recent decision of Houdek v. ThyssenKrupp Materials, N.A., Inc., Slip Opinion No. 2012-Ohio-5685, the Ohio Supreme Court clarified that in order to recover under Ohio’s employer intentional tort statute, R.C. § 2745.01, a plaintiff must show that the employer acted with deliberate and specific intent to injure him. The Court’s holding is a significant result for employers, after a temporary period of confusion on the state of the law.
Ohio has a no-fault workers' compensation system, which gives employees the security of compensation for workplace injuries, while assuring employers that they will not be forced to defend a lawsuit every time an employee claims to have suffered work-related injuries. The employer intentional tort statute provides an exception to this system in cases where the employer commits a tortious act with intent to injure or with the belief that the injury was substantially certain to occur. (R.C.§2745.01(A)) The statute defines the term “substantially certain” as “acting with deliberate intent to cause an employee to suffer an injury, a disease, a condition or death.” (R.C. §2745.01 (B))
This statute and subsequent Supreme Court cases recognizing its constitutionality (Kaminski v. Metal & Wire Prods. Co., 125 Ohio St.3d 250, 2010–Ohio–1027, 927 N.E.2d 1066 (2010), and Stetter v. R.J. Corman Derailment Servs., L.L.C., 125 Ohio St.3d 280, 2010–Ohio–1029, 927 N.E.2d 1092 (2010)) marked a significant departure from the more relaxed common law standard. The common law allowed recovery in circumstances where the employee proved that the employer had knowledge of the existence of a dangerous process or condition, that harm to the employee was a substantial certainty, and the employer required the employee to perform the dangerous task.
While the majority of the courts faithfully interpreted the current version of the statute, requiring evidence of deliberate and specific intent to injure on the part of an employer, the language of the statute was prominently challenged by the Eighth District Court of Appeals in Houdek v.ThyssenKrupp Materials N.A., Inc., 8th Dist. No. 95399, 2011-Ohio-1694.
Plaintiff, Bruce Houdek was assigned to work in a narrow aisle in ThyssenKrupp’s warehouse. His coworker forgot about his presence there and drove a sideloader forklift at speed in the same aisle. He pinned Houdek against a scissor lift he had been using, causing significant injuries. Houdek sued ThyssenKrupp claiming the company had intended to injure him by sending him to work in the warehouse aisle, knowing that injury would be certain or substantially certain to occur. The trial court granted summary judgment to ThyssenKrupp, finding that Houdek had failed to prove that ThyssenKrupp had acted with intent to harm him.
Houdek appealed the decision. The court of appeals reversed the trial court and refused to apply the strict language of the statute. It found that the terms “substantially certain” and “deliberate intent to injure” could not mean the same thing, and attributed this statutory language to “a scrivener’s error.” The court of appeals then returned to the common law standard and held that “intent to injure” can be proven by what a reasonable, prudent employer would believe. Thus, ThyssenKrupp could be held liable for Houdek’s injuries if it “objectively believed the injury to Houdek was substantially certain to occur,” notwithstanding the lack of proof of a deliberate intent to injure.
ThyssenKrupp appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, which initially rejected the appeal, causing a temporary confusion about the state of the employer intentional tort. After a motion for reconsideration, the Supreme Court accepted jurisdiction and the case was fully argued in June 2012. On December 6, 2012, the Supreme Court reversed the Eighth District Court of Appeals, holding that the statutory language is clear: a claimant who brings an employer intentional tort claim is required to prove that the employer acted with deliberate intent to cause injury to him. After analyzing the facts, the Court found that the injury was the result of a tragic accident. While the evidence did show that ThyssenKrupp could have taken steps that might have prevented the accident, the evidence did not rise to the level of deliberate intent to injure.
The court’s opinion settles the temporary confusion caused by the Houdek decision in the Eighth District and clarifies, yet again, that “the General Assembly’s intent in enacting [the employer intentional tort statute], is to permit recovery for employer intentional torts only when an employer acts with specific intent to cause an injury.” While we may continue to see other challenges to the statute’s current construction, this is a significant outcome for Ohio employers.