Employers in New Jersey have a legal obligation to provide a reasonably safe work environment for their employees, free of not only discrimination and harassment but also unsafe conditions that pose a risk of injury or death. Multiple laws at both the state and federal levels address employers’ liability for employees’ workplace injuries. Many injuries fall under the state’s workers’ compensation law, which limits workers’ access to the courts except in cases involving “intentional wrongs.” As we near the start of the second year of the coronavirus pandemic, the courts are receiving numerous lawsuits filed by New Jersey workers and their families seeking to hold employers liable for injuries and deaths caused by the novel coronavirus. A lawsuit filed last summer in Hudson County, for example, alleges wrongful death and other claims against the state’s public transit authority on behalf of an employee who died of COVID-19 last spring.
The New Jersey workers’ compensation law is, in essence, a compromise between employees and employers. Employers pay into an insurance fund, similar to the funds that support the state’s unemployment and disability compensation systems. An employee who suffers a work-related injury on the job is guaranteed compensation from this fund without having to prove that their employer was at fault. In exchange, the employee waives their right to pursue greater damages in court. The one exception to this waiver of litigation rights applies when the injuries are the result of “intentional wrong.” N.J. Rev. Stat. § 34:15-8.
The workers’ compensation statute does not define the term “intentional wrong,” but various court decisions have offered some guidance. With regard to COVID-19, questions of legal liability are still largely hypothetical since New Jersey courts have yet to rule on any major disputes. Employers are sure to dispute whether COVID-19 constitutes a work-related injury, along with disputes over whether any intentional acts on their part caused an employee’s illness. Another factor, of course, could be efforts by some in the U.S. Congress to shield employers from liability for COVID-19 risks in the workplace.
The Hudson County lawsuit relies on federal law for jurisdiction. The Federal Employers Liability Act allows employees of common carriers, including both public authorities and private businesses, to sue for injuries sustained as the result of negligence. 45 U.S.C. §§ 51, 57. The statute gives U.S. district courts and state courts concurrent jurisdiction over employees’ claims, meaning that an injured worker or their next of kin can file suit in state or federal court. Id. at § 56.
The plaintiff in the Hudson County lawsuit is the spouse of a railroad worker who was employed by the state’s railroad authority. According to the complaint, the decedent was exposed to COVID-19 in March 2020 at a rail yard in Jersey City “when he embraced a co-worker who later tested positive” for the virus. He died just over a month later.
The plaintiff claims that the defendant had “instructed its workers…not to wear masks at work unless they were performing their specific job duties” [emphasis in original]. She alleges a series of failures by the defendant to provide a safe work environment, including inadequate training and a lack of personal protective equipment. The lawsuit asserts claims for wrongful death and pain and suffering.
The employment attorneys at the Resnick Law Group are available to help if you have a dispute with your employer in New Jersey or New York. Please contact us today online, at 973-781-1204, or at 646-867-7997 to schedule a confidential consultation with a member of our team.