Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Comp Immune From Tort Liability for Alleged Faulty Inspections

An Ohio appellant court recently held that the state’s Bureau of Workers’ Compensation (“BWC”) was immune from tort liability in a civil action filed against it by the estate of a worker who sustained fatal injuries in an incident involving an extrusion press [Banks v. Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Comp., 2018-Ohio-5246, 2018 Ohio App. LEXIS 5559 (Dec. 27, 2018)]. The estate had contended that BWC was liable because it had negligently provided the worker’s employer with safety consulting services including, but not limited to, evaluating guarding and the safety of its extrusion press operations.

Background

Daniel Banks, an aluminum extrusion press operator employed by BRT Extrusions, Inc. (“BRT”), died on August 5, 2014 as a result of an industrial accident involving an extrusion press. The estate alleged that BRT’s normal operating procedures required the extrusion press to be set to “semi-automatic” to prevent the machine from cycling “without human action and verification that no one was in the point of operation when the machine cycled.”

The estate further alleged that on the date of the incident, after Banks left the machine for a lunch break, another worker set the press to “automatic.” On returning from lunch, Banks walked around to the back of the machine to clear an obstruction, unaware that the press had been set to automatic. The press cycled and Banks was crushed in an unguarded pinch point. Banks subsequently died of his injuries.

The estate alleged BWC was negligent in: (1) failing to recommend a comprehensive guarding audit to determine if the extrusion press’ guarding was adequate for its operation, (2) inspecting the extrusion press and its guards, (3) failing to advise BRT or others that the extrusion press guarding was inadequate for its operation, and (4) recommending inadequate guards.

Court of Claims Decision

BWC filed sought judgment on the pleadings, asserting the complaint was barred by the public duty statute [Ohio Rev. Code § 2743.02(A)(3)]. The Court of Claims found BWC was entitled to public duty immunity. It also found that no special relationship existed between BWC and Banks.

Appellate Court Ruling

The appellate court agreed with the Court of Claims that the allegations regarding the safety consulting services BWC provided to BRT (i.e., involving inspecting, auditing, and consulting with an employer to address workplace safety concerns) implicated statutory or assumed duties by BWC for which the public duty doctrine was applicable. The court was not persuaded by the estate’s claim that third parties also engaged in activities such as inspecting, auditing, and investigating. It acknowledged that private parties might engage in similar activities; nevertheless, a private party’s duty to inspect and to enforce safety standards was not created by statute.

Nor was there any “special relationship” between BWC and Banks. The court noted that there were no allegations demonstrating that BWC had assumed affirmative duties beyond those that it owed the public. The court added that the complaint lacked any allegation that Banks had some form of direct contact between himself and BWC. Accordingly, the appellate court found that the Court of Claims had not committed error in its determination that, on making all reasonable inferences in favor of appellant, BWC was immune from liability under the public duty doctrine and that no special relationship existed between BWC and Banks.

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