When a worker is injured in the course and scope of employment, several laws come into play. Some laws benefit the worker by allowing private suits. Others simply punish the employer by only allowing the government to bring prosecution against the employer. Understanding which of these laws controls the injury suffered is the key first step in ultimate achieving redress for the injured worker. Below is an overview of what laws may provide redress for injuries suffered on the job.
Kansas Worker’s Compensation Act
Chapter 44, Article 5 of the Kansas Statutes outlines the worker’s compensation laws for the state. These laws must always be the first stop when an injury occurs at work. This is because of the doctrine of exclusivity. The basis of this doctrine is that when worker’s compensation covers an injury, it is the exclusive, sole remedy the employee has against the employer. Looking to the purpose of worker’s compensation laws, this makes sense: worker’s compensation is a large compromise between labor and management. Management is giving up most of its ability to fight against liability for claims of injury, while employees are giving up their right to have a jury determine their losses from injuries. Instead, the Kansas legislature has set forth a strict formula for determining what amount an injured worker can recover. Section 44-501 sets out this rule of exclusivity under the Kansas Act.
While exclusivity is a large hurdle, there are some exceptions to its coverage. First, the coverage of the act is limited to injuries “arising out of and in the course of employment.” This means that the injury has to be caused by or related to an assigned task. Specifically, any injury that is caused by “normal activities of day-to-day living” is outside of the scope of the act and thus may be pursued by another claim. Kansas has taken a broad approach to defining employment activities, though, as seen in Moore v. Venture Corp. In Moore, the employee parked his backhoe and was walking to talk to a coworker when he slipped and fell. The court decided that this walking was not a “normal activity,” but instead incidental to his assigned work of operating the backhoe. An example of what would likely satisfy as a “normal activity” is choking on a foreign object in food from an employer-provided cafeteria. Eating is a normal activity not connected to any work assignment, meaning that it is likely outside the scope of the Act and the employee could pursue a claim for negligence against the employer.
The next exception is injuries caused by third parties. Section 44-504 specifically states that when an injury is caused in full or in part by a third party, the employee can recover both worker’s compensation benefits and damages from a lawsuit against the third party. A common example of this would be an employee that in injured from a defective piece of equipment; the employee has a claim for worker’s compensation benefits and a claim against the manufacturer of the defective product. This exception has one additional hiccup—the third party cannot be another employee. In Rajala v. Doresky, the Kansas Supreme Court made it clear that even when another employee commits an intentional tort, such as attacking the injured party, worker’s compensation is the exclusive remedy under the language of Sections 44-501 and 44-504.
Injuries Caused By Equipment
As discussed above, defective tools, machines, and equipment are the most common types of claims for work-related injuries that fall outside worker’s compensation. The manufacturer and seller of a product must ensure that the product is safe for general use. If the product is defective, the law will hold the manufacturer, the wholesaler, and the retail seller all strictly liable for injuries caused by the product. As the name suggests, strict liability is an aggressive claim that attaches liability regardless of fault or misconduct; the law takes the position that those in the chain of commerce for a product benefit from each sale of the product, so it is only fair that they compensate consumers and users of defective products. Employees that use equipment may bring claims for injuries caused by defects against any and all of these defendants. There is no requirement that the employee have purchased the equipment.
Kansas law considers a product defect in three ways: defective in design, defective in manufacture, or defective because of inadequate warnings. A product is defective in design if it poses a greater risk than an ordinary consumer or user would expect. This is known as the consumer expectations test. An example of a design defect was the side-saddle fuel tank used by General Motors in full-size pickup trucks in the 70’s and 80’s. Those these tanks were correctly installed, they posed a serious risk of fire engulfing the cab upon even moderate crashes. Those injured by this defective design—including the several thousand workers using company trucks—were able to seek redress for injuries caused. A product can also be defective in manufacture, where the design is fine but the product contains a mistake. This deviation from the design causes the product to be defective and dangerous. Common examples would include broke bolts or missing pieces in a power tool. The final manner of defects deals with warnings. These cases can be very complex, but the general rule is that consumers and users must be warned of any non-obvious dangers posed by a product. It is important to note that Kansas looks at what is obvious to a member of the trade the user practices in, not what an everyday consumer would know. Thus, there was no need to warn an electrician of the highly flammable nature of a copper-aluminum wire connection, as noted in Eyster v. Borg-Warner. However, a manufacturer is required to warn of dangers that are not obvious to a person in that trade.
When a work-related injury has occurred, it can be unclear who is responsible. Employers have been granted an exclusive remedy for work-related injuries, so long as they fall within the Kansas Worker’s Compensation Act. But when the injury is actually caused by another, entirely different claims must be used to seek redress. Contacting an experienced attorney is essential to ensure that the right parties are held accountable for injuries they have caused.