COLUMBUS - The Ohio Supreme Court Tuesday upheld the constitutionality of a state law making it more difficult for workers to successfully sue their employers for injuries suffered on the job.
The court ruled in two cases, one of them from Wood County, that lawmakers had sufficiently addressed concerns it had raised in the past when it twice struck down such limits.
"Although the statute significantly limits lawsuits for employer workplace intentional torts, it does not abolish the tort entirely," wrote Justice Robert Cupp for the majority in connection with questions posed by a U.S. District Court judge in Toledo.
Carl Stetter sued his employer, RJ Corman Derailment Services in Wood County, after he suffered broken bones and other injuries four years ago when a truck tire he was inflating explosively separated from the rim. He received workers' compensation, but he also filed a lawsuit accusing the company of intentional tort, maintaining the company knew of the dangers and failed to comply with state and federal safety regulations.
The federal judge asked the state's highest court to rule on whether the 2005 law enacted by the Ohio General Assembly passed constitutional muster. The law requires plaintiffs to prove that their employers created a 'substantial certainty of injury' in order to collect damages.
It's a threshold that critics argued is practically insurmountable.
Both votes were 6-1 with Justice Paul Pfeifer casting the lone dissent.
"An employee may recover damages under the statute only if his employer deliberately intends to harm him," he wrote in the Stetter case. "It is difficult to conjure a scenario where such a deliberate act would not constitute a crime.
"Are we to believe that criminally psychotic employers are really a problem that requires legislation in Ohio?" he asked. "No, the purpose of [the law] is to take away the right of Ohio workers to seek damages for their employers' intentional acts."
Justice Cupp took note of past rulings that stuck down other attempts by lawmakers to restrict intentional tort, the most recent in 1999. Of the seven members of the current court, four, including Justice Cupp, joined the court since that ruling.
"It is apparent that the General Assembly responded to this court's previous decisions by eliminating many of the features identified by this court as unreasonable, onerous, and excessive," he wrote. "Thus, in reviewing [the law], we find a more limited statute than those previously held to be unconstitutional."
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