The Exclusivity Provisions of the Act Apply to An Employers Tortious Conduct Committed Within the Bounds of the Employers Proper Role
On June 17, 2011, the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals released its decision in Hudson v. Renosol Seating, LLC. In December 2008, approximately 90 workers at an automobile seating manufacturing plant in Selma, Alabama filed suit against several corporate entities that owned and operated the plant, claiming that those entities willfully, negligently, and/or wantonly exposed the workers to harmful chemicals, fraudulently misrepresented and suppressed facts pertaining to the conditions at the plant, and failed to maintain a safe work place. The workers also sought workers’ compensation benefits pursuant to the Alabama Workers’ Compensation Act. The defendants moved to dismiss the aforementioned tort claims, asserting that the workers’ tort claims were barred by the exclusivity provisions found in §25-5-52 and §25-5-53 of the Act. The Circuit Court of Dallas County agreed with the employers, and dismissed the tort counts of the workers’ complaint, leaving only the claims for workers’ compensation benefits. The workers appealed.
In their appeal, the workers argued that the exclusivity provisions of the Act do not apply to the intentional tortious conduct of an employer. The workers based this argument on the holding in Beard v. Mobile Press Register, Inc., 908 So 2d 932 (Ala. Civ. App. 2004), wherein the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals acknowledged that the exclusivity provisions of the Act had been held not to apply in "certain limited cases" such as intentional fraud "committed beyond the bounds of the employer’s proper role." The workers specifically pointed out the holding in Lowman v. Piedmont Exec. Shift Mfg. Co., 547 So. 2d 90, 95 (Ala. 1989), to which the Court in Beard cited as the exception to the rule. In Lowman, the Court held that the exclusivity provisions did not apply where the employer allegedly coerced an employee who was injured on the job to file a claim for disability benefits as an off-the-job-injury instead of a workers’ compensation claim. However, the Court noted that the scope of Lowman had been significantly circumscribed by the later holding in Ex parte Progress Rail Servs. Corp., 869 So. 2d 459 (Ala. 2003). The Court in Progress Rail stated that when the employee’s injury is otherwise covered by the Act, the employee will not be able to circumvent the exclusive remedy provisions based on the assertion that the employer’s conduct was willful. Citing Accord Harris v. Beaulieu Group, LLC, 394 F. Supp. 2d 1348, 1356 (M.D. Ala. 2005), the Court stated "when it can objectively be ascertained that an injury arises out of and in the course of employment and that the injury is not expected or intended on the employee’s part, pleading or proof of an intent on the part of the employer to injure will not remove the case from the scope of the Act and its exclusivity provisions." In doing so, the Court made it clear that while the exclusivity provisions do not apply to claims alleging intentional tortious conduct committed beyond the bounds of the employer’s proper role, they do apply to conduct committed within the bounds of the employer’s proper role.
Since the workers in Hudson alleged that their injuries stemmed from their employers’ conduct, statements, and fraudulent suppression as to workplace conditions, the exclusivity provisions did apply. As such, the ruling of the Circuit Court of Dallas County was affirmed.