A worker who was injured by a forklift failed to meet the standard of proof to establish “intentional wrong” and her claims, therefore, are barred under the Workers Compensation Act.
In Spatola v. Seabrook Brothers & Sons Inc., a three-judge panel of the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division affirmed a lower court ruling on Tuesday that workers compensation was the exclusive remedy available for the worker to recover from her injuries.
Denise Spatola worked for fresh and frozen vegetable processor Seabrook Brothers & Sons Inc., based in Seabrook, New Jersey, in the area where frozen vegetables were sorted and repacked according to customer specifications. On the day of the incident, she was waiting for forklifts to clear the area before walking to the vegetable station, where she worked as a data clerk. She said she saw a forklift out of the corner of her eye and screamed “stop” but the operator did not see her and ran over her foot, causing severe injuries. The forklift operator tested negative for drugs and alcohol.
The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration had received 19 reports of documented forklift accidents at the facility 40 months prior to Ms. Spatola’s incident; her injuries were the most serious reported.
She filed a complaint against her employer alleging intentional conduct by Seabrook Brothers in failing to adequately train its forklift drivers. The company moved for summary judgment, and in 2019, a trial judge granted the motion, holding that Ms. Spatola failed to meet the “high threshold” that Seabrook Brothers’ conduct was an intentional act sufficient to allow her to “vault” the exclusive remedy bar of the Workers Compensation Act. She appealed, arguing that the trial judge failed to make reasonable inferences in her favor and that she established both the conduct and context prongs of the intentional wrong exception.
The New Jersey appellate court affirmed the ruling. The court said it was “unpersuaded” that Ms. Spatola demonstrated an intentional wrong sufficient to state a claim of negligence against her employer. Although she argued that the congestion in her department, insufficient forklift training and record of forklift accidents satisfied the conduct prong, the court held that she failed to demonstrate an affirmative act that made the workplace significantly less safe for its employee, and that, therefore, she was limited to the remedies available under the Workers Compensation Act.
Ms. Spatola’s attorney, Michael Contarino, declined to comment on the decision but said he plans to appeal to the New Jersey Supreme Court. Neither Seabrook Brothers nor its attorney immediately responded to requests for comment.
U.S. workplace safety regulators have cited a farm supply company for failing to properly maintain forklifts at its Ohio facility and proposed penalties of $258,672.