Industrial accidents can be extremely destructive and deadly. Industries that deal with dangerous chemicals and manufacturing processes are the most at risk for these types of accidents. When injuries result from these occurrences, the law may provide redress for those injuries. Below is an overview of these claims.
Kansas Worker’s Compensation Act
Almost all employers in Kansas fall under the Kansas Worker’s Compensation Act. The Act covers injuries that “arise out of and in the course of employment.” This is a wide grant of coverage and will generally cover an industrial accident that harms workers. The plus side of worker’s compensation is that the injured worker can recover for injuries without having to prove that the employer was at fault. The downside is that damages available to compensate the injured employee are extremely regimented. The injury suffered and how permanent that injury is will entirely determine the monetary damages awarded to the injured worker. There is no opportunity to recover for pain and suffering, for emotional harm, or even for a jury to hear the claim.
The question now is likely, “Why not just bring a negligence claim instead of a worker’s compensation claim?” The answer to this is simple: the worker can’t. This is known as the rule of exclusivity. Simply put, if the accident is covered by worker’s compensation, that is the one and only remedy that is available. This can prevent an employee or an employee’s family from seeking full redress, instead having to settle for what worker’s compensation has outlined as appropriate. It is important to note that the rule of exclusivity deals exclusively with the employer. If a third-party is responsible for the employee’s injuries—such as the manufacturer of a machine—worker’s compensation does not prevent the injured worker from pursuing these types of claims.
Industrial Accidents Caused By Machines
As noted above, a common instance in which worker’s compensation does not prevent other claims is in the context of defective machines. Kansas law requires that all machines manufactured and sold must be free from dangerous defects. When a product is defective and causes injury, the law imposes liability upon the manufacturer and the seller of that product. Further, this liability attaches regardless of fault, meaning that even if the manufacturer was as careful as possible liability will still exist. There is no requirement that the purchaser of the machine bring suit; instead, anyone that is harmed by the defective product can seek redress of injuries. This can be a powerful tool for an injured worker.
A product can be defective in three ways. First, the product may contain a manufacturing error, meaning it was not produced as intended. An example of this would be a welding torch that lacks a necessary bolt. Second, the product can be defectively designed, resulting in a product that is more dangerous than anticipated. This will generally involve showing that the product could be made safer without sacrificing its usefulness. However, a manufacturer is not under an obligation to make a completely safe product when doing so would defeat the product’s purpose. For example, a trash compactor necessarily must be able to crush objects with great force. A worker could not argue that the compactor shouldn’t be strong enough to crush a person’s limb, as that would defeat the purpose of the machine. However, the manufacturer is not allowed to simply leave the danger exposed and unprotected; instead, the manufacturer will need to add sufficient safety devices to the machine and to warn of any dangers that cannot be protected against without limiting the compactor’s usefulness.
This brings up the third way in which a product can be defective: inadequate warnings. A manufacturer is required to warn of all non-obvious dangers. Key to determining if a danger is “obvious” is examining the worker’s trade. The court will ask whether a normal worker in that trade would have been aware of the danger. For example, in Stevens v. Allis-Chambers Manufacturing Co., a farmer’s clothing was caught in a spinning joint of a thresher. The court held that a harvester of wheat, such as the farmer, should know that the joint of a thresher rapidly spins and should not be leaned over with loose-fitting clothing. The fact that an ordinary individual may not even know what the joint of a thresher is doesn’t matter, because it is the knowledge of an ordinary wheat farmer that is used to determine if a danger is obvious.
Two additional considerations that should be noted for product liability claims in an industrial accident are modification and misuse. Even though a machine is manufacturer with adequate safeguards, these safeguards may be altered, bypassed, or ignored by users. These considerations are very important in the context of product liability claims. If the product was fully functional and safe until the safeguard was removed, the claim may fail altogether. However, a manufacture must anticipate modifications to some extent. Attempting to make removal difficult or warning against removal of safeguards is likely necessary for most machines. Misuse of a machine is also a relevant consideration. Generally, carelessness by the user will simply factor into the award of damages granted to the user. Common examples would include using a machine beyond its limits, such as welding at a temperature greater than the torch is rated. So long as the injury is 50% or less the fault of the plaintiff, recovery is only reduced, not barred. When the plaintiff is 51% or more at fault, recovery will be fully barred. Thus, the more unforeseeable and egregious the misuse is, the less likely the plaintiff is to be able to recover.
Industrial accidents can be extremely severe. The nature of large, dangerous machines place workers in a great threat of danger. Worker’s compensation may be the sole remedy available to some injured workers, but only after discussing your case with an experienced attorney can you be sure that you know all avenues of recovery. Failure to hold the responsible parties liable will not only result in recovering less-than-fair redress, but also increase the likelihood others are harmed in similar occurrences.