Ohio Supreme Court Upholds Constitutionality of Intentional Tort Statute

Kegler Brown E-mployment Alert

In a 6-to-1 vote, the Ohio Supreme Court recently issued decisions upholding the constitutionality of R.C. 2745.01 in two separate opinions, Kaminski v. Metal Wire Prods. Co., Opinion No. 2010-Ohio-1027 and Stetter v. R. J. Corman Derailment Servs., L.L.C., Slip 2010-Ohio-1029. The statute, which substantially narrows the definition of what constitutes intentional conduct for which an employer can be held liable, was enacted on April 7, 2005, and applies to all injuries arising on or after that date. The Court's rulings will significantly assist Ohio employers’ defense when their employees seek additional compensation beyond workers' compensation benefits pursuing intentional tort claims.

Intentional tort actions in Ohio have had a long and arduous history, much of it unfavorable to employers. In 1982, in the Blankenship decision, the Supreme Court held that an employee could enforce his common law remedies against his employer — and collect uncapped damages, including punitive damages — for an intentional tort because the employer's intentional conduct, resulting in injury, meant that the injury did not "arise out of" the employment. Therefore, the Court reasoned workers' compensation immunity, pursuant to R.C. 4123.74, did not apply. In 1986, in the Jones decision, the Supreme Court held that "an intentional tort is an act committed with the intent to injure another, or committed with the belief that such injury is substantially certain to occur." Of course, the Court did not define what "substantially certain" means, which left the door open for aggressive trial lawyers to sue Ohio employers. The Ohio Legislature twice enacted statutes following Blankenship seeking to limit employer liability by requiring proof that the employer acted with deliberate intent to injure before it could be held liable. Unfortunately for employers, the Supreme Court held (in 1991 and 1999) that both statutes were unconstitutional.

In a refreshing departure from its previous treatment of intentional torts, the Supreme Court found that the current statute is significantly different from the prior statutes and confirmed its constitutionality. The statute prohibits recovery by an employee in an intentional tort case unless the employee can prove that the employer committed an act (1) with the intent to injure or (2) with the belief that the injury was substantially certain to occur. "Substantially certain" is defined in the statute as the "deliberate intent to cause an employee to suffer an injury, disease, a condition, or death." Justice Robert Cupp, writing for the majority, held "employee victims who can establish under the statute their injuries were caused by their employer's deliberate intent may recover for an intentional tort." This heightened standard requiring proof of deliberate intent on behalf of an employer in a workplace injury should make pursuit of such cases much more difficult for personal injury lawyers and, therefore, should limit their filing. The statute also increases the likelihood that an employer will be granted summary judgment if such a case is filed.

This ruling, which is consistent with other state laws relative to employer intentional tort claims, should provide Ohio employers with a strong defense against future intentional tort cases and limited liability for workplace injuries, except in extraordinary circumstances, to workers' compensation benefits.