AL: Factory Worker Awarded $774G in Work-Related Injury Case

                               

Evergreen, AL (WorkersCompensation.com)-In late November, a Conecuh County jury awarded $774,000 to a factory worker employed at a manufacturing plant. Alabama resident John Dees was involved in a work-related incident in 2015. He was severely injured and was compensated by the company Tenax SPA.

John Dees worked for Tenax, which oversees a plant in Evergreen. The plant makes plastic netting, and other plastic products. Dees had worked for the plant for about six months in 2010, and then for two months again in 2013. When Dees came back to work for the company in July 2014, he was told to apply for the job at Tenax through Onin Staffing, LLC at the direction of the plant’s general manager. 

According to court documents obtained by WorkersCompensation.com, Dees was injured on the job in January 2015 while operating a machine called the Ram IV, which makes plastic netting that is used for erosion control. Dees fed netting into the long tubular stretching machine’s system of rollers, when the machine caught his fingers. The equipment lacked adequate safety guards to shut the machine off, so when Dees’ fingers got stuck, his left hand and arm, up to his shoulder, were also pulled into the machine. His injuries resulted in the loss of use in his left arm and permanent disfigurement, per court documents. 

Dees underwent medical treatment and had incurred medical expenses related to said work injuries. He will also have more medical costs in the future. Dees was unable to perform many of his normal life and work activities, so he lost the ability to earn income.  

John had initially filed a suit in Conecuh County Circuit Court in June against Tenax Corp, Tenax Alabama and Onin Staffing. A related defendant Tenax SPA was added, which is the Italian manufacturer that made the Ram IV. The case also involved a dispute over the amount of workers' compensation that Dees was owed.

Dees claimed that the Tenax companies used the Ram IV despite its allegedly inadequate safety features. He also claimed its design defects that made the machine he used at work, “unreasonably dangerous.” Tenax argued that Dees was responsible, because he tried to feed material into the machine when the rollers were engaged, and “if the Ram IV is operated as it is designed to function, there is zero risk of injury to an operator during the threading process.” 

One of Dees’ attorney’s, Kendall Dunson, told WorkersCompensation.comthe machine that Dees was using violated European, US, and Canadian standards, and should have been replaced in the Alabama plant. 

Dunson said, “There should not be a circular guard on that machine. A supervisor at their Italy plant got his fingers cut just like Dees did, and was training to operate the device in the same manner. When the incident occurred back in 2012, the plant in Italy had their machine changed out, so there was no circular guard. Dees’ arms got pulled all the way up to his shoulders in the same machine and his entire body could have gone through the machine.”

Dunson referenced a deposition that stated personnel from Tenax SPA visit the Alabama plant at least twice a year, and local employees were never informed about the accident nor were they made aware of the circular guard in their machine. 

In court, according to Dunson, Tenax SPA stated that those machines were not the same. “They tried to argue it was a different machine since some machines make thin and thicker netting, and Tenax SPA told the court that the one in Italy makes thinner netting, but during the trial when pictures of both machines were shown, they were in fact exactly the same. The rolls and the guards were the same size and in the same place.” 

Dunson also told WorkersCompensation.com that Dees did receive temporary total disability (TTD) benefits from the staffing agency, and not the plastics company, even though he was a permanent employee of Tenax. When the injury occurred, Dees was finishing up his probationary period on staff, so he still received wages from Onin.  

Dees received a total of $110,000 TTD in medical benefits, and eventually reached maximum payout caps, so he did not receive any other workers’ compensation benefits after that. He did not return to work for Tenax, and even though he had started working again, he could not continue because of the injuries sustained to his body. 

In early 2017, the Supreme Court of Alabama ruled that even though Dees was hired and paid by the staffing company Onin, the exclusive remedy provision of workers’ compensation law also protected Tenax Alabama, and Tenax Corp from tort claims. This left the claim that Tenax SPA’s failure to make their machine safe, or to provide an adequate warning to users, constituted depravity. Tenax SPA actively disputed this and said that the "Plaintiff has failed to provide a legally sufficient evidentiary basis for a reasonable jury to find for him."

However, this case did go to trial, and on Nov. 30 Tenax SPA had to pay out $649,363.82 to Dees in compensatory damages and another $125,000 in punitive damages. In a press release, attorney Evan Allen, who also represented Dees with Kendall Dunson, stated after the judgment: “The defendants’ utter disregard for workers’ safety left our client permanently disfigured. John is a strong, young man, but because the defendants refused to put in place adequate safety devices and protocols, he will have to endure the consequences of their wanton conduct for the rest of his life. Today’s verdict cannot change the circumstances but can restore some of what was taken from John.”

Dunson said they will try to negotiate with Onin regarding appropriate work comp benefits for Dees, or there could possibly be a bench trial.

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