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A worker who lost both arms in a workplace accident failed to show that her employer intended to injure her.
In Henry v. CMBB LLC, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held Tuesday in a 2-1 decision that the employee’s intentional tort lawsuit was barred by the exclusive remedy provision of the Tennessee Workers Compensation Act, holding that she failed to prove a reasonable inference of an actual intent to injure.
Heather Henry had been assigned to work at a manufacturing facility in Humboldt, Tennessee, owned by CMBB LLC by temp agency Personnel Placement Inc.
At the facility, Ms. Henry operated a 200-ton metal press. The press contains a light curtain, which prevents it from cycling if operators are detected within an unsafe area of the press. In early November 2017, an operator reported that the light curtain was not function properly. The company ordered a new light curtain but did not take the press out of operation.
On Nov. 15, 2017, Ms. Henry was operating the press when the machine cycled, crushing her arms, both of which were amputated below the elbow.
She and her husband filed a lawsuit against CMBB for her injuries and his loss of consortium. A district court held that her claims were barred by the Act. The couple appealed.
The appellate court affirmed the decision. Although Tennessee courts allow employees to bring intentional tort claims if the employee can provide a reasonable inference that the employer “actually intended to injure” the worker, the Tennessee Supreme Court has held that even egregious safety violations fail to show actual intent to injure to rise above the exclusive remedy provision.
Ms. Henry argued that CMBB knew the press had defective safety features and that it would eventually injure the operator, but the appellate court held that this did not amount to actual intent to injure.
Judge John Bush dissented from the majority opinion, writing that he would certify to the Supreme Court of Tennessee whether workers compensation remedies are exclusive in this case. Judge Bush noted that the decisions relied on by the majority failed to address the scenario, as in this case, where an employer actually initiated action to address the unsafe condition, yet subjected the worker to that condition, and the consequent injury, before the corrective measure was completed.
“These additional facts alleged by (Ms.) Henry may support a finding that the injury was not accidental,” he wrote. “Because I do not agree with the majority that precedent from the Supreme Court of Tennessee squarely forecloses (Ms.) Henry's claim, I would seek guidance from Tennessee's highest court before ruling on the appeal of the district court's dismissal of the complaint.”
The Special Workers’ Compensation Appeals Panel with the Supreme Court of Tennessee on Friday overturned a 44% permanent partial disability rating given to a 42-year-old truck mechanic with degenerative spinal issues who couldn’t prove an injury at work caused his disability.