The well-known organic and health-food manufacturer Amy’s Kitchen is based in California but operates a plant here in Oregon. According to a recent article in the Sonoma Press-Democrat the company is being sued “by four former employees who claim the company systematically put workers at risk through overwork and unsafe conditions.”
At first glance this would appear to be a straightforward worker’s comp dispute. According to the newspaper a key allegation in the lawsuit involves injuries allegedly sustained by one plaintiff while handling large and heavy objects in the plant. While the current lawsuit as reported by the Press-Democrat does not seek damages on the basis of third-party liability issues these are worth exploring on a hypothetical level, because they are a potential factor in many workplace deaths and injury cases.
The key case when considering this sort of third-party liability in Oregon is Kilminster v Day Management Corp (323 Or. 618) which was decided by the Oregon Supreme court in 1996. In that case the estate of a man who died on the job contended that the employer “deliberately did not provide its workers, including decedent, with legally-required safety equipment.” The court also found that the company did not offer necessary safety training to employees and did not have a proper safety plan in place.
The question considered by the court was whether Oregon’s workman’s compensation laws, in effect, precluded an additional claim for wrongful death. The state supreme court ruled that they do not, because to do so would violate the Oregon constitution’s guarantee of “remedy by due course of law for injury done”.
Put simply, the court in Kilminster held that workman’s comp programs do not give irresponsible or negligent employers a free pass from responsibility for either their actions or inactions. Further, it is important to understand that while the Kilminster case involved a workplace fatality and an Oregon wrongful death claim, the legal doctrine it established extends to injuries as well and includes sub-contractors. Employers are obligated to provide a safe work environment with proper training, safety equipment and safety plans not only for the people they hire directly but also for freelancers and people employed via third parties. In Kilminster the court addressed a case in which the violations were so significant that they constituted actual intent to injure workers, but negligence does not have to rise to that extreme level to create liability.
As a Portland attorney licensed to practice in both Oregon and Washington I have long sought to help people in both states navigate often-confusing legal problems like these. Workman’s comp laws are important, but it is equally important for someone coping with the aftermath of a workplace death or injury to understand that they are not the only tool for holding an irresponsible employer accountable for his actions after tragedy strikes.
The Press-Democrat: Petaluma-based Amy’s Kitchen hit with lawsuit over its Oregon plant