Revisiting the Pleasant Standard: Estate of Rodney Baker v. David W. Reinhart and Randy Reinhardt
Every few years, a Pleasant claim makes its way to the Court of Appeals and almost always serves as a reminder that the facts must be particularly egregious to warrant such a claim. As a reminder, if an employee is injured on the job, filing a workers’ compensation claim is typically the exclusive remedy for recovery. In most cases, the employee cannot file a separate personal injury claim against the employer. However, there is an exception to that rule. The Pleasant case from 1985 established an exception to the exclusivity provision of the workers’ compensation system that allows employees injured by the willful, wanton, and reckless negligence of a co-employee to sue that co-employee or employer directly. For a Pleasant claim to survive a 12(b)(6) Motion to Dismiss, there must be evidence of wanton and reckless behavior equivalent to an intentional act. The burden of proof is on the plaintiff to show that the behavior is “so gross as to be equivalent in spirit to actual intent.” Our courts have held that even unquestionably negligent behavior rarely meets the high standard of “willful, wanton or reckless’ negligence.” Thus, the plaintiff faces a high standard and a difficult burden in these claims.
The most recent case from the Court of Appeals revisiting the Pleasant standard is Estate of Rodney Baker v. David W. Reinhart and Randy Reinhardt. In this case, the plaintiff worked as a bandsaw operator. On March 17, 2020, Plaintiff, without direction or instruction from the employer, was cleaning around a machine when he stepped into a partially enclosed area. After entering this area, an OSHA report later revealed that Plaintiff “was crushed between the Machine’s lower table arm and a steel support structure on the side of the building, suffering trauma to his chest.” Plaintiff sustained significant injuries, and ultimately passed away from his injuries. During OSHA’s investigation, other employees reported they were aware of the dangers of stepping into that specific area, were aware of the machine’s guarding hazard, and knew they could not be in the area where Plaintiff was found when the machine was running. OSHA cited the employer with a serious violation for failing to provide “one or more methods of machine guarding” which could have prevented the accident.
Plaintiff argued that the plant manager knew of the hazard, admitted in the past that the area would result in life-threatening harm, and claimed to be too busy to complete the necessary fencing that could have prevented injury. The claim against the plant manager was ultimately dismissed, and the Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal. The Court looked to the employer’s award-wining safety program, quarterly briefings, and well-documented and explicit instructions to turn machines off and come to a complete stop before bending over and cleaning around the machine. The Court also noted that in the 15 years of operation, all of which occurred during Plaintiff’s employment, (1) nobody was injured on the machine or its predecessor; (2) OSHA issued no violations related to the same; and (3) Defendant-Employer received no safety complaints from staff about the machines. Further, the defendants did not request or direct the plaintiff to clean around the machine.
This case continues to demonstrate that a plaintiff has a high burden to meet to survive a Motion to Dismiss when it comes to asserting a Pleasant claim. Even with the high standard and burden for plaintiffs, it is worthwhile to note some of the factors the Court considered in this claim. Specifically, employers should document and analyze any concerns regarding dangerous areas, machines that need safety improvements, or other hazards. Employers should then take the necessary steps to educate employees on the areas or machines at issue, provide PPE/remedy areas of concern, and provide sufficient ongoing trainings. The Court will also examine the employer/co-worker’s knowledge of the level of danger of the activity, whether the employer/co-worker was present at the time of such injury, and/or whether the employer/co-worker directed the employee to engage in the dangerous activity. The Court will also take past OSHA violations and safety records into account. Out of the above, it appears the most persuasive is the employers willingness to provide ongoing training/experience.