For years, many employers have assumed that if an employee alleges that he or she was injured while working, recovery under the North Carolina Workers’ Compensation Act was the Employee’s only remedy. This belief is grounded in the language of  § 97-10.1 of the North Carolina Workers’ Compensation Act, which states:

If the employee and the employer are subject to and have complied with the provisions of this Article, then the rights and remedies herein granted to the employee, his dependents, next of kin, or personal representative shall exclude all other rights and remedies of the employee, his dependents, next of kin, or representative as against the employer at common law or otherwise on account of such injury or death.

However, a case was recently decided by the Court of Appeals of North Carolina that raises serious doubts as to whether recovery under the Workers’ Compensation Act is an Employee’s only remedy. In Jackson v. The Timken Company, decided on May 21, 2019, the Court of Appeals addressed a situation wherein an Employee asserted a claim for medical negligence against his Employer. In Jackson, Plaintiff was employed as a grinding machine operator and suffered a stroke while at work. He alleged that his stroke was misdiagnosed by a company nurse.

Plaintiff initially filed a workers’ compensation claim against his employer. The workers’ compensation claim was denied via an opinion and award by a deputy commissioner. The deputy commissioner found that Plaintiff did not sustain an injury by accident arising out of and in the course and scope of his employment.

Thereafter, Plaintiff filed an action in Gaston County Superior Court asserting a claim for medical negligence against his employer. Defendants moved to dismiss Plaintiff’s action based on a lack of subject matter jurisdiction. Defendants argued that the Workers’ Compensation Act provided Plaintiff an exclusive remedy under such circumstances. The Trial Court denied Plaintiff’s motion to dismiss and Defendant appealed that decision to the Court of Appeals.

The Court of Appeals affirmed the decision of the trial court to deny Defendant’s motion to dismiss. In deciding that Plaintiff could bring a claim outside of the Workers’ Compensation Act, the Court of Appeals found that Plaintiff’s injury was not caused by an accident and did not arise out of and in the course of his employment.

Perhaps most troubling is the specific language used by the Court in summarizing its findings. The Court stated,

In sum, Plaintiff’s claim does not fall under the exclusive jurisdiction of the Industrial Commission through The Act. Where an injury occurs in the course of one’s employment but is not caused by an accident and does not arise out of that employment, the injury does not fall under The Act and the injured party may not be compensated thereunder. As both the Industrial Commission and trial court correctly concluded, Plaintiff’s injuries are not compensable under the Act. Therefore, the Commission does not have exclusive jurisdiction over Plaintiff’s claim, and the trial court did not err in denying Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.

While the facts of the Jackson claim are unusual, it is anticipated that plaintiff attorneys will attempt to utilize the language of the case to argue that workers’ compensation benefits are not an exclusive remedy for their clients in certain situations involving injuries at work. This could lead to an influx of negligence claims brought against employers by their employees. We will continue to monitor how the courts interpret these types of issues and whether any future courts specifically address the findings in Jackson.

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Joe Delfino

The information published in Hedrick Gardner Alerts is general in nature and not intended to take the place of legal advice on any particular matter. © 2019 Hedrick Gardner Kincheloe & Garofalo LLP