Until the Ohio legislature enacted R.C. 2745.01 in 2005, the employer intentional tort exception to workers’ compensation immunity exasperated Ohio employers. Under the exception as interpreted by the Ohio Supreme Court, employers could be held liable for an intentional tort (with the accompanying tort damages such as punitive damages) so long as they had knowledge of a dangerous condition in its workplace that was substantially certain to cause injury and nevertheless required its employee to work under that condition. This was a very relaxed standard for an “intentional” tort and one that was made even more relaxed by increasingly liberal interpretations from Ohio appellate courts.
R.C. 2745.01 was designed to raise the standard by requiring employees to prove that the employer acted with “deliberate intent” to cause an employee to suffer an injury, a disease, a condition, or death. The statute created only two presumptions of a deliberate intent to injure: (a) if an employer deliberately lied to an employee about whether a substance was toxic or hazardous and as a result that substance injured the employee, or (b) if an employer deliberately removed an “equipment safety guard” and as a result of the removal the employee was injured. In those two circumstances, specific intent would be presumed.
Once the Ohio Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of R.C. 2745.01 the plaintiffs’ bar attempted to find ways around the statute to once again open up the lucrative business of employer intentional torts. However, one-by-one early successes by the plaintiffs’ bar in the appellate courts have been overturned in the Ohio Supreme Court.
For example, in Houdek v. ThyssenKrupp Materials N.A., Inc., the Ohio Supreme Court rejected the Eighth Appellate District’s finding that R.C. 2745.01 did not really require deliberate intent to injure in order to establish an employer intentional tort. Similarly, in Hewitt v. L.E. Myers Co., the Ohio Supreme Court rejected the Sixth Appellate District’s broad interpretation of an “equipment safety guard” to include personal protective equipment (rather than a guard attached to a piece of a equipment) Had it been upheld, the lower court decision in Hewitt in effect would have imposed an affirmative duty on employers to make available personal protective equipment at the risk of being found liable for an employer intentional tort. In reaching its decision, the Ohio Supreme Court in Hewitt defined an equipment safety guard as “a device designed to shield the operator from exposure to or injury by a dangerous aspect of the equipment.”
Despite the Ohio Supreme Court’s rejection of expansive interpretations of employer intentional torts from the intermediate courts of appeal, the Sixth Appellate District again has attempted to find a way around the statute. Specifically, in Pixley v. Pro-Pak Industries, Inc., the Sixth District concluded, contrary to the Supreme Court’s Hewitt decision, that for purposes of interpreting R.C. 2745 an equipment safety guard need not be a device “designed to shield the operator [of the equipment] from injury.” Therefore, according to the Sixth District non-operators injured by removal of such a device from a piece of equipment could obtain a presumption of specific intent and proceed to a jury on an employer intentional tort claim. This interpretation by the Sixth District, if upheld by the Ohio Supreme Court, would substantially expand the scope of the intentional tort exception by expanding the types of devices that can constitute equipment safety guards as well as expanding the types of employees who could argue for the exception.