Employee’s Comparative Negligence in Workplace Accident Case Can be Submitted to the Jury

Fernandes v. DAR Development Corp., 222 N.J. 390 (2015).  Kane v. Hartz Mountain Industries, Inc., 278 N.J. Super. 129 (App. Div.1994), aff’d o.b., 143 N.J. 141 (1996), ruled that the comparative negligence of an employee who is injured in a workplace accident may be submitted to the jury in appropriate circumstances.  The plaintiff there, who had been sitting on a steel beam of a partially completed structure, was injured when a strap attached to a column snapped, causing him to lose his balance and fall to the ground.

Kane rejected the argument of the employee that the issue of his comparative negligence was not to be submitted to the jury.  The plaintiff had based that argument on Suter v. San Angelo Foundry & Mach. Co., 81 N.J. 150 (1979), and cases following Suter.  Those cases had precluded jury consideration of an injured employee plaintiff’s comparative negligence in the context of workplace injuries caused by a defective machine or product.  Kane found that “no decision has applied the Suter rule to a workplace injury not caused by a defective machine or product,” and declined to extend Suter as the plaintiff in Kane had requested.  The Supreme Court affirmed that decision without a full opinion.

In today’s case, plaintiff was injured while working on a construction site.  As in Kane, his injury was not caused by a defective machine or product.  Finding no facts in the record to support any negligence by plaintiff, the Law Division declined to charge the jury about comparative negligence.  The jury returned a verdict for plaintiff.

Defendant appealed the refusal to charge comparative negligence.  The Appellate Division affirmed, based on the absence of evidence of negligence by plaintiff.  But that court also invoked Suter and its progeny.  Defendant petitioned for certification, asserting that the Appellate Division’s ruling conflicted with Kane, which had refused to extend Suter to workplace injury cases not involving defective machines or products.    

In a unanimous opinion by Judge Cuff, the Supreme Court affirmed the ruling in favor of plaintiff.  The courts below correctly found, on the facts that Judge Cuff detailed at great length, that there was no evidence of any negligence by plaintiff, so that it was inappropriate to charge comparative negligence.

But the Court rejected plaintiff’s request to extend Suter.  Judge Cuff “expressly affirm[ed] the rule announced in Kane and disapprove[d] of the Appellate Division’s analysis of the issue in this appeal to the extent it suggests that the Suter rule applies to bar the comparative negligence defense in all cases arising out of injuries sustained while an employee is engaged in a task on his employer’s behalf.”  The Court was careful to note, however, that “[t]he principles of Suter remain sound as applied to the narrow realm of cases that fall under its umbrella: cases in which an employee is injured when using a defective piece of equipment in a reasonable and foreseeable manner to complete his assigned task.”

Business interests were undoubtedly watching this case, given the potential for extension of Suter.  The Court’s decision today, however, leaves New Jersey law unchanged as to the applicability of an injured employee’s comparative negligence, whether by a defective machine or product or otherwise.