Employer held accountable, beyond workers compensation, for traumatic amputation
Kristi Fries lost both hands above the wrist when the stamping machine she was operating cycled in response to her loose clothing. She sued her employer, Mavrick Metal Stamping, arguing that it was responsible beyond workers compensation benefits because it had intentionally caused her injury. An employer in Michigan is immune even from gross negligence or willful misconduct, if an employee is covered by workers compensation: the courts have been exceedingly slow to allow employees to recover more than medical and partial wages, no matter how egregious the employer's fault is causing an injury. The Court of Appeals allowed Fries to recover outside work comp, however, after reciting the facts leading up to her horrible injury.
Fries was injured while operating a machine known as the OBI-11. Another employee testified that the light sensors on the machine had caused it to cycle inappropriately on him, two years earlier, however, the company had taken no action to correct the problem, despite his complaint to two supervisors. Fries was hurt on her first day operating the OBI-11, and no one had warned her of the risk associated with bulky sleeves actuating the light sensors inappropriately.
The machine was not equipped with "pull-backs", a standard press safety feature that will remove the operator's hands from the danger area if the machine cycles unexpectedly. The OBI-11 was the only machine of its type at Mavrick that was not equipped with pull-backs, and it was also the only machine that did not require the operator's hands to be well out of danger in order to actuate palm buttons. Finally, the manufacturer of the OBI-11 sold "field covers" which would prevent this type of injury, however, Mavrick did not install them on this machine. The owner acknowledged his awareness that his OBI-11 did not incorporate this feature, and an inspector found the safety devices in the maintenance office after Fries' injury.
Mavrick sought dismissal of Fries' claim, arguing that she had failed to prove an intentional injury exception to workers compensation because she had not proved that an injury was "certain to occur." The Court of Appeals noted, however, that the Supreme Court has recognized an injury is "certain to occur" in comp terms, where an employer "subjects an employee to a continuously operative dangerous condition that it knows will cause an injury, yet refrains from informing the employee about [it] so that he is unable to take steps to keep from being injured..." Applying this standard to the facts adduced, the Court of Appeals unanimously held that it was a question of fact for the jury to decide whether Fries could prove that her employer corporation intentionally caused her injury.
The case is Kristi Fries v. Mavrick Metal Stamping, Inc., f/k/a M2, Inc., f/k/a Mancelona Manufacturing, Inc. and Tower Automotive.