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Supreme Court Upholds 2005 Legislation Limiting Workplace Intentional Tort Lawsuits

Statute Requires Injured Worker to Show Employer 'Intended to Cause Injury'

In two separate decisions announced today, the Supreme Court of Ohio upheld as constitutional a 2005 state law that limits the ability of workers who are injured on the job to sue their employers for a “workplace intentional tort” in addition to receiving state workers’ compensation benefits. The challenged statute requires that workers asserting intentional tort claims against their employer must prove that, in committing the acts or omissions that resulted in a worker’s injuries, the employer acted “with a deliberate intent to cause injury.”

In Kaminski v. Metal  & Wire Products Co., the Court held 6-1 that the challenged statute, R.C. 2745.01, does not violate Section 34 or 35 of Article II of the Ohio Constitution. Those sections authorize the General Assembly to enact statutes that provide for “the comfort, health, safety and general welfare of all employees,” and to adopt laws facilitating  the resolution of employment-related injury claims through the Ohio Workers’ Compensation program.

In Stetter v. R.J. Corman Derailment Services, the Court answered questions of state law submitted by the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio. In a 6-1 decision, the Court found that R.C. 2745.01 does not violate the provisions of the Ohio Constitution that guarantee trial by jury, a remedy for damages, open courts, due process, equal protection of the laws or the separation of powers between the legislative and judicial branches of government. The Court also held that, while R.C. 2745.01 limits the ability of workers to assert common law employer intentional tort claims previously recognized by this Court, it does not eliminate such claims. Based on those findings, and its holding in Kaminski,  the Court concluded that R.C. 2745.01 is constitutional on its face.

The majority opinions in both cases were written by Justice Robert R. Cupp.

2008-0857.  Kaminski v. Metal & Wire Prods. Co., Slip Opinion No. 2010-Ohio-1027.
Columbiana App. No. 07-CO-15, 175 Ohio App.3d 227, 2008-Ohio-1521.  Judgment of the court of appeals reversed, and judgment of the trial court reinstated.
Moyer, C.J., and Lundberg Stratton, O'Donnell, and Cupp, JJ., concur.
O'Connor, J., concurs in judgment only.
Lanzinger, J. concurs in part.
Pfeifer, J., dissents.
Opinion: http://www.supremecourt.ohio.gov/rod/docs/pdf/0/2010/2010-Ohio-1027.pdf

Video clip View oral argument video of this case.

(March 23, 2010) In today’s Kaminski decision, Justice Cupp traced the evolution of Ohio’s workers’ compensation system to 1912, when Section 35, Article II of the state constitution was initially adopted. Under amendments to the original version adopted in 1924, Justice Cupp noted, Section 35, Article II provides that a worker who is injured in the course of his job duties does not have a right to recover for those injuries through a civil lawsuit against his employer. In return, the law requires employers to make regular payments to an insurance fund from which injured workers may recover for their medical expenses and lost wages, regardless of who was at fault for their injuries, through an administrative process administered by the Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation.

He noted, however, that under case law developed by Ohio courts beginning in the 1980s and clarified in the Supreme Court of Ohio’s 1991 decision in Fyffe v. Jeno’s Inc., certain injured workers have been held eligible to pursue an “intentional tort” lawsuit against their employer in addition to receiving workers’ compensation benefits.  In those decisions, Justice Cupp wrote, the Court held that an injured worker may sue for civil damages outside the workers’ compensation system when the worker can show that either: 1) the employer intentionally caused injury to the worker; or  2) the employer knew about a workplace condition or practice that was so dangerous that exposing a worker to it created a “substantial certainty” of injury and, despite that knowledge, the employer required the worker to be exposed to the dangerous practice or condition, resulting in injury to the worker.

Justice Cupp wrote that since 1986  the legislature has made several attempts to enact laws that codify and limit the scope of workplace intentional tort claims, but the prior statutes enacted for that purpose were ruled unconstitutional by this Court first in Brady v. Safety-Kleen Corp. (1991) and later in Johnson v. BP Chemicals Inc. (1999).  Effective April 7, 2005, he noted, the General Assembly adopted current R.C. 2745.01, which specifies that in order to prevail in an intentional tort action asserting a “substantial certainty” claim, the plaintiff  must show that his employer acted “with deliberate intent to cause an employee to suffer an injury ...”

Rose Kaminski was injured in the course of her employment with Metal & Wire Products Inc. in June 2005. She applied for and received workers’ compensation benefits for her injuries, and also filed an intentional tort claim against her employer in the Columbiana County Court of Common Pleas. In her pleadings, Kaminski asked the trial court to hold that then recently enacted R.C. 2745.01 was unconstitutional, and instead to consider her claim under the common law “substantially certain to cause injury” standard set forth in the Supreme Court’s 1991 Fyffe decision.

Metal & Wire Products  counterclaimed, asking the court to issue a summary judgment declaring that current R.C. 2745.01 was constitutional. The court granted summary judgment finding the statute constitutional and therefore applicable to Kaminski’s complaint. It subsequently granted summary judgment to the employer, dismissing Kaminski’s complaint on the ground that she had not made  the showing required by R.C. 2745.01 that Metal & Wire Products had acted with a “deliberate intent” to cause her injuries.

Kaminski appealed. On review, the 7th District Court of Appeals held that the challenged statute was unconstitutional, vacated the trial court’s award of summary judgment, and remanded the case for consideration of Kaminski’s intentional tort claim under the common law standard. In its decision, the 7th District pointed out that in Brady and Johnson the Supreme Court of Ohio had overturned as unconstitutional similar statutory language limiting intentional tort lawsuits, based on the Court’s determination that the legislature’s constitutional authority to restrict  common law causes of action affecting injured workers is limited by Sections 34 and 35 of Article II. Because the Supreme Court had not abandoned or overruled its prior decisions in Brady and Johnson, the 7th District held that it must follow those precedents and on that basis found the 2005 statute unconstitutional.  Metal & Wire  Products sought and was granted Supreme Court review of the 7th District’s ruling.

In today’s decision, Justice Cupp cited several Supreme Court decisions announced since 1999in which the Court has held, contrary to Johnson,  that Sections 34 and 35 of Article II of the state constitution do not restrict the constitutional authority of the legislature but rather affirmatively grant the General Assembly wide authority to enact laws regulating wages, hours and workplace conditions affecting employees generally, and to adopt laws and codify common law in order to balance the rights and obligations of employers and employees in the operation of the state workers’ compensation system.

In light of those decisions, Justice Cupp wrote: “Notwithstanding the clear text of Section 34, this court in Johnson interpreted Section 34 as placing substantive limits on the General Assembly’s authority to enact employer intentional-tort legislation. However, American Association of University Professors v. Central State Univ. II (1999) and Lima v. State (2009) contradict Johnson’s view that Section 34 limits the General Assembly’s authority to enact legislation.  Because Lima v. State and AAUP II are the more recent and controlling authorities regarding Section 34, they have effectively superseded the interpretation given to that section by Johnson. Consequently, the decision in Johnson has no stare decisis value on this issue. Because Section 34 is not a limitation on the General Assembly’s authority, it necessarily follows that R.C. 2745.01 does not violate it.

“Similarly, notwithstanding the clear text of Section 35, this court in Johnson in effect held that any legislative attempt to govern employer intentional torts is per se invalid under that section, asserting that this area of law ‘is beyond the reach of constitutional empowerment.’ ... Such an interpretation of Section 35 cannot be reconciled with the plain language of the section or with the historical underpinnings of its enactment. Moreover, Johnson's interpretation is inconsistent with the later, and more accurate, view of Section 35 expounded in Holeton (v. Crouse Cartage Co., 2001) ... and in Bickers (v. W&S Life Insurance Co., 2007) ... Therefore Johnson’s analysis of Section 35 can have no stare decisis value in our inquiry. Section 35 is simply irrelevant to the constitutionality of R.C. 2745.01.  Because Section 35 is not a limitation on the General Assembly’s authority to legislate in the area of employer intentional torts, it necessarily follows that R.C. 2745.01 does not violate Section 35.”

While acknowledging “serious internal flaws” in the analysis of Sections 34 and 35 set forth in Johnson, the Court noted that the former statute held unconstitutional in Johnson included several provisions not included in the version of R.C. 2745.01 challenged by Kaminski, and therefore concluded: “(B)ecause a different statute was at issue in Johnson, we constrain the interpretation of Section 34 and 35 to the specific context of that case, and we decline to overrule Johnson.”

The majority opinion was joined by Chief Justice Thomas J. Moyer and Justices Evelyn Lundberg Stratton and Terrence O’Donnell.  Justice Maureen O’Connor concurred in  judgment only. 

Justice Judith Ann Lanzinger entered a separate opinion concurring with the majority’s judgment, but stating that in her view the Court should have formally overruled and abandoned Johnson as precedent.  She wrote: “The majority opinion takes great pains to show how Johnson’s analysis of these constitutional sections was seriously flawed.  Yet instead of cleanly and honestly overruling the case, Johnson is merely limited ‘to the specific context of that case.’ ...  This is done in spite of our now contrary position that  Section 34 is not a limitation on the General Assembly’s authority to enact legislation in the area of employer intentional torts.”

Quoting from her concurrence in another recent case in which a prior decision of the Court was identified as erroneous but not overruled, Justice Lanzinger concluded: “‘To serve the need for predictability, consistency, and clarity in the law, we must be forthright about overruling cases when that is our true intent and is the practical effect of a decision.’ To do otherwise leads to confusion, leaving parties to struggle to determine what law is controlling.”

Justice Paul E. Pfeifer entered a dissent in which he reviewed a historical pattern dating back to 1982 in which he said the Supreme Court has held that workers injured on the job by the intentional conduct of their employers have a constitutional right to seek relief for that harm outside of  the workers’ compensation system, the legislature has responded by enacting bills that define workplace intentional torts so narrowly that the cause of action is rendered “illusory,” and the Court has responded in turn by ruling that the restrictions imposed by the legislature were unconstitutional.

He wrote: “In the midst of that tug of war, this court developed in Fyffe v. Jeno’s, Inc. (1991), ... a workable common-law test to determine the requisite intent to prove a workplace intentional tort, a test rooted in Section 8(A) of the Restatement of Law 2d, Torts. But today, the cycle ends, as the General Assembly has found a court that agrees with it: workers have no constitutionally protected right to seek redress for injuries suffered from their employer’s intentional torts. That this court reaches that decision today is, standing alone, no sin.  The common law does, necessarily, evolve and change. The common law, however, should not be ignored; its repudiation should at least be acknowledged. Without overturning years of contrary precedent, this court anoints the General Assembly’s abolition of workplace intentional torts. I disagree with the majority decision.  I would follow this court’s precedent in Johnson, Fyffe, Brady, Jones, and Blankenship and affirm the judgment of the court of appeals.  Accordingly, I dissent.”

Contacts
Irene C. Keyse-Walker, 215.592.5000, for Metal & Wire Products Company.

David A. Forrest, 216.771.4050, for Rose Kaminski.

2008-0972.  Stetter v. R.J. Corman Derailment Servs., L.L.C., Slip Opinion No. 2010-Ohio-1029.
United States District Court, Northern District of Ohio, Western Division, Certifying Questions of State Law, No. 3:07CV866.  Certified questions answered in the negative.
Moyer, C.J., and Lundberg Stratton, O'Donnell, Lanzinger, and Cupp, JJ., concur.
O'Connor, J., concurs in the answers only.
Pfeifer, J., dissents.
Opinion: http://www.supremecourt.ohio.gov/rod/docs/pdf/0/2010/2010-Ohio-1029.pdf

Video clip View oral argument video of this case.

(March 23, 2010) Carl Stetter of Wood County was injured in the course of his employment with R.J. Corman Derailment Services in March 2006.  He applied for and was granted state workers’ compensation benefits, and also filed a civil suit against Corman in the Wood County Court of Common Pleas asserting an intentional tort claim. 

Corman exercised its option to remove the case to federal district court. In its answer to Stetter’s complaint, Corman asserted the defense that because Stetter’s injuries occurred after  R.C. 2745.01 took effect in April 2005, his intentional tort claim must be dismissed because he had not produced evidence proving the statutory requirement that Corman had acted with “deliberate intent” to cause his injuries. Stetter entered a motion asking the district court to reject Corman’s statutory defense on the ground that R.C. 2745.01 violates multiple provisions of the Ohio Constitution. The district court noted that the Supreme Court of Ohio had not yet considered the constitutionality of R.C. 2745.01, and requested that this Court answer eight questions of state law corresponding to each of Stetter’s claimed constitutional infirmities.

Writing for the Court in today’s decision, Justice Cupp addressed each of the questions posed by the federal court in turn, and held  that R.C. 2745.01 does not violate an injured worker’s rights under the Ohio Constitution to a remedy for damages, or to a jury trial, open courts, due process of law, equal protection of the laws, or the separation of powers among the branches of state government.  In response to a final question, the Court held that while R.C. 2745.01 restricts the common law cause of action for employer intentional torts recognized in prior Ohio court decisions, it does not eliminate that cause of action.

In holding that the challenged statute does not violate injured workers’ due process rights by barring civil lawsuits against their employers unless they prove that the employer acted with a “deliberate intent to cause injury,” Justice Cupp cited recent legal scholarship showing that a large majority of states impose similar limitations on workplace injury suits based on the strong public policy favoring “no-fault” workers’ compensation systems. He wrote that under the applicable “rational basis” test “a statute will be upheld if it is rationally related to a legitimate government purpose and it is not unreasonable or arbitrary.  ... It is not unreasonable or arbitrary to conform Ohio’s law of employer intentional torts to that of a majority of jurisdictions. Furthermore, R.C. 2745.01 is rationally related to legitimate purposes.”

Quoting from a leading legal text, Larson’s Workers’ Compensation Law, Justice Cupp wrote: “The two most important reasons for the exclusivity of the workers’ compensation remedy are ‘first, to maintain the balance of sacrifices between employer and employee in the substitution of no-fault liability for tort liability and, second, to minimize litigation, even litigation of undoubted merit.’  As to the first important reason, ‘it must be remembered once again that this is a no-fault system as to both employer and employee.’  Conventional standards regarding what a  ‘just’  result might be are subordinated to other concerns in this setting, and awards are routinely made to employees injured as the result of their own misconduct. ... Given that a claimant’s fault is irrelevant in most situations to his or her workers’ compensation recovery, it is not incongruous to likewise provide, as the General Assembly has in R.C. 2745.01, that an employer’s liability for most injuries is limited to the claimant’s recovery of workers’ compensation benefits.”

“As to the second important reason, ‘every presumption is on the side of avoiding the imposition of the complexities and uncertainties of tort litigation on the compensation process.’ ... One of the fundamental pillars supporting Section 35, Article II is the exclusivity of the no-fault compensation system. The inclusion of this feature in Section 35, Article II underscores the importance the Constitution places on avoiding litigation over workplace injuries. No more extensive examination of the relationship between the statute’s purposes and its effects is necessary. ... The state manifestly has a legitimate interest in legislating in the area of employer intentional torts. The fact that a clear majority of jurisdictions apply standards the same as or similar to those contained in R.C. 2745.01, and the well-established rationale behind Section 35, Article II, which underlies the statute, establish that the statute furthers legitimate purposes that are neither unreasonable nor arbitrary.”

Quoting from two recent decisions in which the Court upheld the constitutionality of tort reform legislation (Groch v. General Motors Corp. 2008, and Arbino v. Johnson  & Johnson, 2007)  Justice Cupp concluded: “As we noted in Groch,  ... ‘It is not this court’s role to establish legislative policies or to second-guess the General Assembly’s policy choices.  “[T]he General Assembly is responsible for weighing [policy] concerns and making policy decisions; we are charged with evaluating the constitutionality of their choices.  ... Using a highly deferential standard of review appropriate to a facial challenge to these statutes, we conclude that the General Assembly has responded to our previous decisions and has created constitutionally permissible limitations.”’ In enacting R.C. 2745.01, the General Assembly has not exceeded its authority to change the common law in the area of employer intentional torts. Accordingly, we must uphold the constitutionality of the statute.”

Justice Cupp’s opinion was joined by Chief Justice Thomas J. Moyer and Justices Evelyn Lundberg Stratton, Terrence O’Donnell and Judith Ann Lanzinger. Justice Maureen O’Connor concurred in judgment only.

Justice Paul E. Pfeifer entered a dissenting opinion citing the same reasons set forth in his dissent in  Kaminski v. Metal & Wire Products, also announced today and summarized above. He added that in his view R.C. 2745.01 restricts  the constitutional rights of injured workers to a legal remedy and to open courts.

Justice Pfeifer wrote further: “R.C. 2745.01 purports to grant employees the right to bring intentional-tort actions against their employers, but in reality defines the cause of action into oblivion. An employee may recover damages under the statute only if his employer deliberately intends to harm him. ... Are we to believe that criminally psychotic employers are really a problem that requires legislation in Ohio?  No, the purpose of R.C. 2745.01 is to take away the right of Ohio workers to seek damages for their employers’ intentional acts. ... The majority answers the eighth certified question—‘Does R.C. §2745.01, as enacted by House Bill 498, effective April 7, 2005, do away with the common law cause of action for employer intentional tort?’—in the negative. My question is, ‘What’s left?’”

Contacts
Robert E. Davis, 419.897.6500, for Carl Stetter.

Margaret M. Sturgeon, 419.241.6000, for R.J. Corman Derailment Services LLC.

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