Recently, a courageous judge in Jefferson County declared Alabama’s Workers’ Compensation Act unconstitutional. Most would agree the ruling is significant given the inadequate benefits provided to injured workers versus the protections provided to employers. Though the Alabama Workers Compensation Statute is deficient in many areas, it does offer certain protections that are crucial to the well-being of injured workers:
- Retaliation against injured workers pursuing their legal rights under the Statute is prohibited, and
- individual co-employees may be held responsible for failure to repair or the bypassing of a safety device.
Both of these issues were in play in a recent jury trial verdict in Montgomery County in the case styled Leon Battle v. Koch Foods. The verdict in this case, which was handled by our firm, is most significant.
In April of 2014, Mr. Battle was employed as a maintenance worker at Koch Foods, a chicken processing plant. He was tasked with repairing a chicken cage moving machine on the day of the incident. The machine was surrounded by perimeter fencing and the access gate was interlocked, meaning opening the gate would kill all power to the machine and as long as the gate was open, the machine could not activate. Koch Foods had a lock out/tag out policy that called for maintenance workers to lock out certain machines when doing maintenance. Koch Foods had exceptions to its lock out/tag out policy that allowed maintenance workers to forgo locking out machinery if they relied on the safety gate. Any time the machines were down, Koch Foods was not making money. Testimony from current and former employees revealed that the exception was implemented to save downtime.
On the occasion in question, Mr. Battle entered the gate and left it open to perform a simple adjustment. The operator moved the controls causing the equipment to activate. Mr. Battle lost portions of four fingers on his left hand. While exiting the gate and wrapping his injured hand, Mr. Battle noticed a metal pole between the interlock sensors. The day following the incident, Mr. Battle returned to work to complete Workers Compensation documents and was warned not to hire a lawyer if he wanted to keep his job.
Given the extent of his injuries, Mr. Battle chose to hire our firm to investigate his potential claim. He returned to work seven days after he sustained his injury and reported to work at his normal time of 5 a.m. He worked on light duty for seven-and-a-half hours before he was terminated. Marc McHenry, an investigator at Beasley Allen, contacted the company to set up an inspection of the machine at 11:07 a.m. that morning. Mr. Battle was terminated within the hour after Koch Foods discovered that the employee had hired our firm to represent him. According to Koch Foods, the employee was terminated for violating the company’s lock out/tag out policy. That was a bogus claim.
Suit was filed alleging claims based on wrongful discharge and failing to repair and/or bypassing a safety device. The case was tried before a jury, which returned a verdict for Mr. Battle and against Koch Foods and its plant manager for $1.9 million, including more than a million dollars in punitive damages.
The verdict was significant because it held an employer responsible for retaliating against an injured worker for pursing his constitutional right to hire legal counsel to assist him in pursing his claims against culpable Defendants.
Punitive damages were justified because the Defendants were directly responsible for Mr. Battle’s injuries and they threatened him with job loss, following through on their threat. Additionally, the Defendants then had the worker’s compensation carrier cut off his medical benefits. The Defendants thought they could intimidate Mr. Battle, but they were wrong. Hopefully, Koch Foods and other similarly situated employers will think twice about retaliating against injured employees.
Regardless of what happens to Alabama’s Workers’ Compensation Statute, the provision prohibiting retaliation should remain in place for employees like Mr. Battle and an employer like Koch Foods. Larry Golston, Kendall Dunson, and Leon Hampton handled this case for Mr. Battle. Montgomery lawyer Tamika Miller sent the case to us. She is handling the worker’s compensation case, which has been set for a separate bench trial before Circuit Court Judge Greg Griffin.