NC Court of Appeals Hands Down Opinion in Woodson Claims

Woodson Claims – NC Court of Appeals Ruling Further Condemns Their Viability

In October the North Carolina Court of Appeals issued an opinion further condemning the viability of Woodson claims in North Carolina. – Woodson claims are wrongful death tort actions based on an injury sustained at work. In Valenzuela v. Pallet Express Inc. (COA10-87), the Court once again rejected a Woodson claim in what seemed to be a severely and egregious case. Typically, parties injured at work can only bring claims under workers’ compensation, and not tort actions, such as for wrongful death. There is a very rare exception that allows for tort claims for injuries resulting from intentional misconduct by the employer or “conduct that, while not categorized as an intentional tort, was nonetheless substantially certain to cause serious injury or death to the employee.”

In this case, the deceased was working feeding pallets into a pallet shredder. The plaintiff, the personal representative of the deceased brought the case on behalf of the deceased estate. It was alleged that the employer: 1) removed safety guards from the shredder which sacrificed employee safety for increased production; 2) assigned an underage employee to work on heavy equipment in violation of State and Federal law; 3) failed to provide the deceased with proper training on the shredder; and 4) failed to ensure that trained personnel were present when the shredder was operated. The underage 17-year-old worker was left unattended and was killed when he apparently fell into the giant shredder machine. The Court of Appeals concluded that the employer’s alleged conduct was not reckless enough to constitute a valid Woodson claim. Woodson claims have only been allowed in one case – Woodson – which gave rise to the possibility of such a claim. Given the egregiousness of the conduct here, it is hard to imagine any non-intentional conduct that the Court would accept under a Woodson theory. Failure to find a Woodson claim here further emphasizes that Woodson claims are no longer viable.

To read the entire North Carolina Court of Appeals opinion, click here. If you have any questions about this topic or about any other wrongful death or employment matter, please contact Todd Jones, Partner of Anderson Jones, PLLC at (919) 277-2541 or by email.