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Published: Wednesday, 3/24/2010

Restriction on worker lawsuits is upheld

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF

COLUMBUS - The Ohio Supreme Court Tuesday upheld the constitutionality of a state law that makes it more difficult for workers to successfully sue employers for on-the-job injuries they say could have been avoided.

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 legislative attempts to limit what injured employees could collect on top of their workers' compensation benefits.

"Although the statute significantly limits lawsuits for employer workplace intentional torts, it does not abolish the tort entirely," Justice Robert Cupp wrote for the majority in connection with questions posed by a U.S. District Court judge in Toledo.

Carl Stetter sued his employer, R.J. Corman Derailment Services in Wood County, after he suffered broken bones and other injuries four years ago when a truck tire he was inflating separated explosively from the rim.

Mr. Stetter had received workers' compensation, but he also filed a lawsuit accusing the company of intentional tort, maintaining that the company knew of the dangers and failed to comply with state and federal safety regulations.

The federal judge with the case before him asked the state's highest court to rule first on whether the 2005 law enacted by the Ohio General Assembly passed constitutional muster. The law requires that for plaintiffs to collect damages they must prove that their employers created a "substantial certainty of injury."

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," Justice Pfeifer 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, the most recent in 1999, that struck down other attempts by lawmakers to restrict intentional tort. 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."

Roger R. Geiger, of the National Federation of Independent Business/Ohio, said small businesses are "breathing a sigh of relief" as a result of the ruling.

"Absent strong legislation that now has been upheld by the court, Ohio employers were in jeopardy of being held liable for both workers' compensation benefits and additional damages - double jeopardy," he said.

Tom Gallagher, a Toledo lawyer with similar cases in the courts that could be affected by yesterday's decisions, noted that the court appeared to go against its own precedent.

"There are many instances in the workplace where workers are injured because an employer insists they perform tasks that are inherently dangerous," he said. "They are not in a position to say no to an employer."

Contact Jim Provance at:

jprovance@theblade.com

or 614-221-0496.



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