Plaintiff’s Claim For Intentional Harm Survives Motion To Dismiss Made By Defendant

The exclusive remedy provision is a powerful one in New Jersey. It is the rare case where a plaintiff successfully proves intentional harm. Nonetheless, a well-plead complaint will often survive a motion to dismiss as is shown in Blackshear v. Syngenta Crop Protection., et. al. 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 125505 (D.N.J. October 31, 2011).

The facts are fairly straightforward: plaintiff Jeanette Blackshear filed suit on her own behalf and as administrator of her late husband’s estate and as guardian ad litem for her minor children. She claimed that her husband was exposed to toxic chemicals while working as an exterminator for Corbett Exterminating, which exposures allegedly caused his death. To overcome the exclusive remedy provision of the New Jersey Workers’ Compensation Act, her complaint alleged that Corbett knew and intentionally concealed “the hazardous nature of or the extent of the hazardous nature of the chemicals that decedent used in his work.”

Further aspects of the complaint contained allegations that Corbett knew the risk inherent in the use of the chemicals, failed to disclose that risk to decedent, and failed to supply him with certain safety equipment. In support of her complaint plaintiff attached a certification regarding her husband’s death, Material Safety Data Sheets, and expert reports showing a link between exposure to chemicals and her husband’s fatal illness.

The District Court reviewed the leading cases dealing with the standards on intentional harm in New Jersey, including Laidlow v. Hariton Mach. Co., Inc. 170 N.J. 602 (2002). This case establishes both a conduct and context prong for evaluating intentional harm cases.

The plaintiff’s complaint met the first prong dealing with conduct, according to the court, because the pleadings sufficiently alleged that Corbett knew that exposure to chemicals in the workplace were substantially certain to lead to the illness and death of the decedent.

The plaintiff’s complaint met the second prong as well, which requires that “the resulting injury and the circumstances of its infliction on the worker must be (a) more than a fact of life of industrial employment and (b) plainly beyond anything the Legislature intended the Workers’ Compensation Act to immunize.” Laidlow at 617. The court scrutinized the complaint, which alleged that Corbett withheld information about the risks of harm from the decedent and failed to provide him with safety devices. “Taken as true, this allegation indicates not only that Corbett turned a blind eye to the risks inherent in the use of the chemicals but actually went as far as to hide those risks so that decedent would not know they existed. Such concealment is hardly an expected fact of life in industrial employment, and accordingly, this court finds that it is not the type of risk that the New Jersey Legislature likely envisioned as being barred under the Workers’ Compensation Act.”

It is important to understand that this case did not deal with the merits of the case at all. It simply focused on the attempt by the defendant to dismiss the complaint at the initial stage of the litigation as being barred by the exclusivity provision of the New Jersey Workers’ Compensation Act. The court denied the defendant’s motion to dismiss. Whether the plaintiff can prove her case remains to be seen.

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