On Tuesday, in two separate decisions, the Ohio Supreme Court finally resolved the lingering question as to the constitutionality of a 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 workers’ compensation benefits. The challenged statute – RC § 2745.01 – requires that an injured worker bringing an intentional tort action against his employer must prove that the employer acted with a “deliberate intent to cause an employee to suffer an injury, a disease, a condition, or death.”
In Kaminski v. Metal & Wire Products Co., the Court held 6-1 that the challenged statute does not violate Section 34 or 35 of Article II of the Ohio Constitution. Justice Robert Cupp, who authored both majority opinions, noted that since 1986, the Ohio legislature made several attempts to enact laws that codify and limit the scope of workplace intentional tort claims, but prior versions of RC § 2745.01 were ruled unconstitutional by the Court, most recently in 1999 in Johnson v. BP Chemicals, Inc. However, the Court noted that in several Supreme Court decisions since 1999, the Court ruled that Sections 34 and 35 of Article II do not restrict the authority of the legislature to enact laws regulating workplace conditions. In light of these decisions and arguably the addition of four new justices since the Johnson decision, the Court determined that RC § 2745.01 does not violate the Ohio Constitution. Interestingly, although the Court declined to overrule Johnson because the former version of the statute at issue in that case contained several provisions not included in the current version of RC § 2745.01, the Court noted that Johnson has no stare decisis value on this issue.
In the second opinion released by the Court on Tuesday – 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.
Justice Paul Pfeifer dissented in both cases, writing that tightening the definition of intentional workplace tort “defines the cause of action into oblivion” because an “employee may recover damages under the statute only if his employer deliberately intends to harm him.” Justice Pfeifer further noted that “Are we to believe that criminally psychotic employers are really a problem that requires legislation in Ohio?”
The Court’s decisions yield a swift blow to plaintiffs attempting to bring an intentional tort lawsuit based on a workplace injury. Plaintiffs now bear an exceptionally high burden of proving that the employer intended for the injury to occur.