Robert M. worked as a foreman at a construction company. One day, he used a gas-powered saw to cut a plastic pipe. The blade kicked back, lacerating his face and disfiguring him.
Robert sued the saw’s manufacturer. He claimed that the gas-powered saw was defectively designed and manufactured. He also claimed that the manufacturer failed to provide adequate warnings on the saw, and in the user’s manual, as to the possible dangers of the machine.
The manufacturer defended the lawsuit by claiming, among other things, that Robert himself was more responsible for the accident than it was. Therefore, Robert should not receive any compensation. Or, at the very least, the amount of his compensation should be reduced.
The manufacturer offered several examples as to how Robert was careless. First, it pointed out that the saw was fitted with a blade that was not authorized in the user’s manual. In fact, the manual apparently warned against the use of unauthorized blades.
Second, the manufacturer argued that Robert could have used a different tool to cut the pipe. Finally, the saw-maker claimed that Robert, as a supervisor, should have ordered someone else on his team to cut the pipe. If he had, his face would not have been cut up.
In sum, the manufacturer argued that Robert had meaningful choices the day he was sliced with the saw. He made the wrong choices. Therefore, he should not receive any compensation from the saw-maker.
The federal judge in Trenton who heard the case ruled for Robert. She wrote that it didn’t matter whether Robert had “meaningful” choices. Otherwise, workers in Robert’s position might not be able to obtain fair compensation for their workplace injuries. They are not allowed to sue their employers for personal injury damages. All they can do is bring a worker’s compensation claim. So, for example, Robert could not have sued his employer for inserting an unauthorized blade into the saw. His only remedy against his employer was a worker’s compensation claim.
But in a worker’s compensation claim. compensation is very limited. Therefore, if a manufacturer is allowed to escape liability, by blaming the employee for “meaningfully” choosing to use the tools that his employer provided him with, the employee could never receive full compensation. The judge refused to permit such a situation.
As with most any legal ruling these days, there are exceptions, depending on the exact facts involved. By the way, I think we all know what would have happened if Robert had made the meaningful choice of not using the tool provided to him by his employer. It’s called meaningful unemployment.