Earlier this year the North Carolina Court of Appeals overturned a $450,000 jury award to a former Goodyear Tire employee for negligent infliction of emotional distress. The Court of Appeals said that the trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to hear the case. The ruling demonstrates just how difficult it can be for employees to seek recovery for workplace injuries through the court system rather than through the North Carolina Industrial Commission.
The suit, Shaw v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., was launched after Lashanda Shaw sued her former employer for mishandling complaints based on workplace harassment. Shaw alleged a supervisor was rude and aggressive towards her and frequently engaged in harassing and intimidating tirades. Despite repeated complaints to human resources personnel, the supervisor remained in his position and continued harassing her.
The jury who heard the case agreed that Shaw had suffered severe emotional distress caused by Goodyear and that the company failed to intervene to stop the harassment. The jury decided Shaw was entitled to $450,000 in compensatory damages as a result of the harm she suffered.
Unsurprisingly, Goodyear appealed the decision and argued that there was no jurisdiction for the lower court to hear the case. Goodyear claimed that her negligent inflection of emotional distress claim amounted to an “accident” that should be heard only according to the terms of the North Carolina Workers’ Compensation Act. The North Carolina Court of Appeals agreed.
The Court of Appeals ultimately decided that the bar for what cases could be tried by ordinary judges would be set very high. In fact, the ruling states that for the purposes of avoiding workers’ compensation exclusivity, it is not enough that an employer behaves recklessly. Instead, to recover for a workplace injury in the courts rather than before the NC Industrial Commission, a plaintiff must be able to demonstrate that his or her employer engaged in conduct so extraordinary that it is tantamount to an intentional tort.
Given that Shaw’s claim only dealt with allegations of “reckless indifference,” “negligence” and “mishandling” on the part of her employer, the Court of Appeals decided it did not rise to the level necessary to be heard by a normal court. As such, her jury award was vacated and she will have to bring the case before the state’s Industrial Commission to obtain the justice she deserves.
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