When it comes to accountability from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) for work safety hazards, employers aren’t going to be able to rely heavily on the narrow exception courts have carved for “rogue supervisors.”
That was the ruling recently handed down by 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, based in Atlanta, in which the court affirmed a review by the Occupational Safety & Health Review Commission. The earlier ruling held that an employer based in Claxton, GA broke industry safety standards when it allowed employees to work without fall arrest systems. The company was also accused of failing to prevent a worker from unsafely using a stepladder.
In Quinlan v. U.S. Department of Labor, the company argued it wasn’t responsible for paying government fines for these actions because it was a supervisor who was engaging in misconduct – not the company. In making this argument, it relied on the 2013 case of ComTran Group Inc. v. U.S. Department of Labor.
In that case, the court favored the employer, finding the actions of a single “rogue” supervisor shouldn’t be the responsibility of the entire organization. But of course, employers are held vicariously liable for the actions of their workers all the time. What made the ComTran case different was that the supervisor in question was normally the one who served as the company’s “eyes and ears.” So when he engaged in the alleged misconduct central to the case – and covered it up – employer was effectively rendered “blind and deaf.”
So that brings us to the Quinlan case. Justices with the 11th Circuit were quick to point out the ComTran case is the exception – a narrow one – not the rule. And that exception, the court ruled, didn’t apply here.
Keep in mind: This was a case of the government trying to impose fines on a company for safety violations. There is no indication workers were actually hurt, though certainly adverse events are bound to happen when companies fail to make safety a priority.
These types of cases are separate from those brought by employees for workers’ compensation benefits. The government has broadly claimed interest in the improvement of worker safety, but when it comes to fighting for adequate benefits, workers need their own lawyer.
According to court records in this case, defendant was the subcontractor in charge of steel erection at a construction site of a high school in Albany, GA. The company has approximately 30 employees, and two were working on site when an inspector arrived one day in 2012.
The two workers were assigned to installation of clips on a concrete wall, underneath the roof. The inspector saw the two workers on the edge of a 15-foot high concrete block wall without fall protection. Further, the ladder wasn’t secure from slipping when in the closed position.The total amount of the proposed penalties was $11,400.
The company fought back, citing the ComTran case. It wasn’t the first to do so. Several other employers have (unsuccessfully) argued they shouldn’t be held accountable because of a rogue supervisor. But what this and other decisions have indicated is that those cases are going to be few and far between. Generally, companies can expect a supervisor’s knowledge of and failure to prevent a safety violation will be imputed to the firm.
For information on Atlanta work injury compensation, contact J. Franklin Burns, P.C., at 1-404-303-7770.
Quinlan v. U.S. Department of Labor, Jan. 8, 2016, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit
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