Utah Court Says Worker Can Sue for Damages above Workers' Comp

February 17, 2009 (PLANSPONSOR.com) - The Supreme Court for the state of Utah has ruled that a refinery plant worker who suffered from seizure disorder due to exposure to toxic gases can sue Chevron for damages.

While Chevron argued that Workers’ Compensation law provides that workers’ compensation is the exclusive remedy for workplace accidents, Jenna R. Helf contended her injury fell under the “intentional injury” exception since the employer knew of an earlier accident for which workers were sent home due to illness. The court agreed that the intentional injury exception is triggered when an action is ordered by an employer with “reasonable certainty” an injury will occur.

The state high court overturned a district court decision dismissing Helf’s claim against Chevron with prejudice and without leave to amend, saying that the district court’s “conclusion is erroneous because Helf’s complaint successfully pled facts that, when viewed in the light most favorable to her, demonstrate an intent to injure on the part of her supervisors who, regardless of their motivations, knew or expected that she would be injured when she re-initiated the neutralization process.”

Helf’s complaint alleges that another Chevron employee initiated an identical reaction in the same open-air pit, just hours prior to her injury, creating a large purple cloud that set off chemical alarms across the Refinery. As a result of the reaction, several workers were sent home due to illness. According to the Utah Supreme Court’s opinion, Helf’s supervisors neither warned her about the earlier incident nor instructed her that she would need special respiratory protection.

Because of her exposure to the toxic gases, Helf now suffers from a permanent seizure disorder. Helf received $7,880.37 for her temporary, total disability during the time that she was unable to work due to her injuries. The Labor Commission also ordered that Chevron pay medical expenses for her treatment.

Helf filed a complaint with the district court requesting damages for the permanent and life-altering injuries she sustained.

The opinion in Helf v. Chevron U.S.A., Inc. is here .