What Do You Think: Was Mold Machine Operator Burned by Hot Plastic Limited to Seeking Workers’ Compensation?

18 Jan, 2024 Chris Parker


Roland, IA (WorkersCompensation.com) -- In Iowa, an injured worker can sue a company or coworkers for negligence if he can show they were grossly negligent. Otherwise, in most cases, the injured employee is limited to seeking workers’ compensation.

A case involving an injection mold machine operator who was burned at work illustrates what it takes to prove gross negligence.

The company in that case had been using the machine the employee operated since around 2007. Neither he nor his coworkers wore personal protective equipment around the machine.

In 2013, a coworker was performing a maintenance function on top of the machine. He removed a part and the machine released hot plastic, burning the coworker.

In 2019, the plaintiff in this case was conducting a “purge” of the machine, which was a normal part of the operations process. This was done in the operator’s area, not on top of the machine. While performing the task, the machine sprayed hot plastic on him.

The plaintiff sued three co-employees for gross negligence.

In general, the court explained, workers' compensation is the only remedy available for workplace injuries. An exception exists when an injury is caused by another employee's gross negligence.

To establish his co-employees were grossly negligent, the employee was required to prove that they:

(1) Knew of the peril;
(2) Knew that injury was a probable result of the danger; and
(3) Consciously failed to avoid the peril.

The trial court granted the coworkers summary judgment. The court reasoned, in part, that there was not enough evidence that the coworkers knew the injury was probable. The employee appealed.

Did coworkers know the mold operator was likely to get hurt?
A. Yes.
Based on the previous incident in which the machine spewed hot plastic, the coworkers knew of the danger and knew that injury was probably going to result.
B. No. The coworkers weren’t wearing protective equipment and the prior accident occurred under different circumstances.

If you selected B, you agreed with the court in Demjanovich v. Hickle, No. 23-0718 (Iowa Ct. App. 01/10/24), which found insufficient evidence that the coworkers knew that injury was probable under the circumstances.

Focusing on the second gross negligence element, the court rejected the employee’s argument that the prior incident involving the machine injuring someone showed that the coworkers knew that injury was likely to occur. The two sets of circumstances were not sufficiently similar to put the coworkers on notice, the court observed. The other injured employee was on top of the machine performing maintenance when he was burned. The plaintiff, on the other hand, was performing a normal operating task in the operators’ area when he was injured.

The court also pointed out that the coworkers the plaintiff was suing didn’t wear protective gear around the machine.

“To believe they were knowingly ‘assuming the risk’ of the imminent danger of being burned by hot melted plastic is an unreasonable inference,” the court wrote. The only reasonable inference, the court remarked, was that they did not believe they were in any danger.

Because the plaintiff could not satisfy the second element needed to show gross negligence, his sole remedy was worker’s compensation.

The court affirmed the trial’s court’s ruling in the coworkers’ favor.

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