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Electrician cannot sue employer for intentionally-caused injury

The Michigan Legislature adopted a statute that defines the rare situations where an employee can sue his employer for injuries suffered at work.  Normally, the employee is limited to the benefits provided by the workers compensation scheme (that is statutory medical  or funeral/burial payments, partial wage loss and very limited attendant care).  The legislature did hold open the potential for an employee to sue his employer for injuries if they are the result of intentional misconduct.  It also defined "intentional" misconduct in a manner that allows a jury to infer the employer's intent.  That statutory definition was at the heart of a disagreement by the Court of Appeals judges who decided the Allard v. Detroit Edison case.

Allard was a Detroit Edison electrician who was assigned to perform maintenance work at the Fermi nuclear plant while it was shut down.  He was given a list of repairs to be performed and a set of uninsulated tools, and told that the plant would be de-energized.  One of Allard's assigned tasks was to clean and restore connections in the very cramped motor control center.  The center carried a tag that read "normally de-energized," however, Edison engineers had decided to maintain power to the motor control center during the "outage" and maintenance activities.  No one told Allard, however.

Allard suffered severe injury and burns in an explosion that resulted when he contacted a live circuit fuse connection with an uninsulated screwdriver.  The Department of Labor investigation of the incident concluded that Detroit Edison had commited multiple serious violations of the MIOSHA safety standards and regulations.  The majority concluded that Allard's injury claim against Edison should be dismissed because the power company did not "intend" to injury him.  The dissent, reading the definition of the pertinent statute, concluded that it should be up to a jury to decide whether Edison's conduct under the circumstances should be protected from liability.

The statute says that an "employer shall be deemed to have intended o injur if the employer had [1] actual knowledge that an injury was certain to occur, and [2] willfully disregarded that knowledge."  The dissenting judge pointed out that under Michigan precedent, the employer must know only that "an" injury is certain, not "the" injury suffered.  The judge then noted that previous decisions have held that if an employee is exposed to a "continuously operative dangerous condition that it knows will cause an injury", but does not inform the employee of the danger, a jury may conclude that the employer has knowledge that an injury is certain to occur.

Applying this law to the instant case, the dissenting judge concluded that the jury/factfinder should have made the ultimate decision assessing the intent of the corporate defendant employer,  a sophisticated purveyor and handler of electrical current.  Insofar as the corporate "entity" had knowledge of the extreme danger to which it deliberately exposed the employee by requiring him to work in the cramped, electrified space with uninsulated tools and no knowledge of the danger, the dissenting judge concluded that Allard had created a question of fact under the pertinent statutory language.

Thompson O’Neil, P.C.
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Traverse City, Michigan 49684
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