Manufacturer's Not Knowing About 'Probable' Injury Defeats Tort Claim

15 Oct, 2020 Frank Ferreri


Des Moines, IA ( – When an oven operator’s arms became trapped under a sizing roller on a production line at a snack food manufacturer’s facility, the question of whether an earlier safety inspection alerted the manufacturer to the danger meant the difference in the case.

According to the court in Tisor v. Hollerauer, No. 19-0673 (Iowa Ct. App. 10/07/20), the worker’s estate was limited to workers’ compensation benefits and couldn’t sue under tort law because although the manufacturer knew the machine in question posed a risk, it did not know that an injury to the operator was a probable result.

Sizing Roller Safety

On the day at issue, the operator was at work before the rest of his team. When coworkers arrived, they found him unconscious under the machine’s sizing roller. Three days later, the operator died.

Previously, an employee experienced an injury to two fingers on the same machine, and this injury led the Iowa Occupational Safety and Health Administration to inspect the entire facility. The inspection noted several locations that presented a danger to operators at the facility, including some rollers.

While the inspection noted that an unguarded sizing roller would “probably lead to injury, amputations or death,” no sizing rollers at the facility presented a danger in the inspection report.

The operator’s estate sued the manufacturer in a tort claim alleging that the manufacturer was negligent in its attention to safety at the facility.

The trial court ruled in favor of the manufacturer, concluding that while the manufacturer might have known about the risk of an unguarded sizing roller, nothing showed that injury was a probable result or that the manufacturer’s action created a “zone of imminent danger.” As a result, the court limited the estate’s recovery to workers’ compensation benefits.

The estate appealed.

‘Wanton Neglect’

Under Iowa workers’ compensation law, the exclusive remedy provision prevents a worker (or his estate) from suing in tort for a work injury unless the injury happened because of the employer’s “gross negligence amounting to such lack of care as to amount to wanton neglect” for the worker’s safety.

The court explained that this standard requires a worker to establish three elements to show that the employer’s action amounted to “wanton neglect”:

  1. Knowledge of the danger.
  2. Knowledge that an injury is a probable -- not just possible -- result of the danger.
  3. A conscious failure to avoid the danger.

According to the court, while the manufacturer knew about the danger due to the safety inspection and report, the second element sunk the estate’s claims. In the court’s analysis, the manufacturer did not create the danger at the sizing roller and “had no reason to believe” that the operator would be exposed to imminent harm through his duties of starting the machine on the day in question.

The court highlighted that it wasn’t clear what the operator was doing on the machine at the time or how his arms were pulled under the sizing roller. Additionally, there was no history of injuries from any of the sizing rollers at the facility.

Even following the inspection, the manufacturer wasn’t notified that any sizing roller at the facility presented an open and obvious danger to employees.

“None of the notes or the [inspection] report state the sizing roller should have additional guarding added,” the court wrote.

Thus, the appeals court agreed with the lower court that the evidence in the case didn’t show that the manufacturer knew its conduct would place the operator “in imminent danger and injury was more likely than not to be the result.”

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    About The Author

    • Frank Ferreri

      Frank Ferreri, M.A., J.D. covers workers' compensation legal issues. He has published books, articles, and other material on multiple areas of employment, insurance, and disability law. Frank received his master's degree from the University of South Florida and juris doctor from the University of Florida Levin College of Law.

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