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The law firm of Sharpless & Stavola, P.A. provides top quality, aggressive legal representation to individuals and businesses throughout North Carolina. A core practice area of the firm is employment litigation, where our attorneys regularly represent parties in disputes arising from all aspects of the employer-employee relationship. Employment issues frequently litigated by the firm include claims of discriminatory hiring and employment practices, sexual harassment, retaliation and wrongful discharge, wage and hour violations, breach of contract and no-compete covenants, and employee benefits litigation. In addition to confronting claims of traditional employment discrimination, the firm represents parties with respect to statutory rights and obligations imposed by the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Family Medical Leave Act.

On behalf of our clients, we regularly appear in all North Carolina state and federal courts and administrative agencies, including the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the North Carolina Department of Labor, and the Office of Federal Contractor Compliance Programs (OFCCP).

Sharpless & Stavola, P.A. is a Martindale-Hubbell “AV” rated law firm. Please review the firm’s webpage for additional information, including individual attorney profiles. The firm's telephone number is 336-333-6400.

Friday, February 1, 2013

N.C. Supreme Court Concludes Injured School Employee Failed to Satisfy Heightened Willfulness Standard Under Exception to Worker’s Compensation Exclusivity Rule


As discussed in our last post, the North Carolina Supreme Court, in its recent Trivette v. Yount opinion, ruled that a Caldwell County public school employee stated a valid negligence cause of action against her school’s principal for an injury suffered on the job.  In so ruling, the Court concluded that the employee’s claim was not barred by the exclusivity provision of North Carolina Workers’ Compensation Act because the relationship between the employee and the school’s principal was one of co-workers rather than one of employee-employer.  Consequently, the claim against the principal qualified for the  Pleasant exclusivity exception, which allows plaintiffs to pursue negligence claims against co-workers for injuries resulting from willful, wanton, and reckless negligence.

After making this initial determination, the Supreme Court considered the defendant’s second, alternative argument.  Specifically, the defendant argued that the plaintiff’s claim, even if allowed to circumvent the exclusivity argument, still failed as a matter of law because the principal’s alleged conduct simply did not rise to the level of willful, wanton, and reckless conduct.  Under this alternative argument, the defendant moved for a summary judgment in its favor.  The trial court denied this motion, finding that disputed issues of fact required a jury to decide the issue. 

After reviewing the facts of the case in a light most favorable to the plaintiff, the Supreme Court agreed with the defendant’s position and determined that the trial court should have granted summary judgment.  The Supreme Court reversed the trial court on this basis.

In its analysis, the Court acknowledged evidence showing that the plaintiff was worried that a mishap with the fire extinguisher could trigger a relapse of her myasthenia gravis.  The Court further found evidence sufficient to suggest that the defendant was aware of this fear.   Nevertheless, the Court referred to precedents holding that even unquestionably negligent behavior rarely meets the high standard of willful, wanton, and reckless negligence.  The Court concluded that there was no evidence indicating that the fire extinguisher presented any danger, whether immediate or latent, while the record was silent as to whether the extinguisher contained any warning labels.  The Court then concluded that even if the defendant knew that an unexpected discharge would be “messy and unpleasant,” the evidence was still insufficient to support an inference that the defendant was willfully, wantonly, or recklessly negligent, or that he was manifestly indifferent to the consequences of an accidental outburst.

Ultimately, the Supreme Court’s ruling in Trivette is something of a mixed bag for parties to negligence actions arising from work place injuries.  On the one hand, the opinion arguably broadens the scope of the Pleasant exception to Worker’s Compensation exclusivity by establishing that a school’s principal and administrative worker constitute co-workers for purposes of the exception.  At the same time, however, the opinion confirms the high level of proof necessary to establish willful, wanton, and reckless negligence under this exception.  Please feel free to contact me directly by email or at (336) 333-6388 to discuss this case law development or other North Carolina employment law issues. 

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