Tennessee Workers’ Compensation – The exclusive remedy rule and the intentional tort exception.

Posted on Jul 8 2013 7:58AM by Attorney, Jason A. Lee

Analysis:  The recent Tennessee Court of Appeals decision of Celia Moody Rodgers v. GCA Services Group, Inc. and Weakley County Tennessee, 2013 WL 543828 (Tenn. Ct. App. February 13, 2013) provided a good discussion about the exclusive remedy rule found in the Tennessee Workers Compensation Act at T.C.A. § 50-6-108(a).  Simply put, this rule provides that an employee can only sue his or her employer under Tennessee Workers Compensation Law for injuries sustained while working and not in a tort suit.  In this case, the plaintiffs asserted the employee died as a result of pneumonia she had because of her exposure to mold in her job with her employer.  The defendants filed motions to dismiss under the exclusive remedy rule asserting the employees only remedy was under the Tennessee Workers’ Compensation Act, not a suit in tort.  The trial court dismissed the case due to the exclusive remedy rule.


On appeal, the Tennessee Court of Appeals noted that Tennessee Workers Compensation Law “provides the exclusive remedy for an employee who is injured during the course and scope of his employment, meaning the employee is precluded from seeking tort damages for the injury.” Rodgers at 4 (quoting, Valencia v. Freeland and Lemm Constr. Co., 108 S.W.3d 239, 242 (Tenn. 2003)).  T.C.A. § 50-6-108(a) provides as follows:


The rights and remedies granted to an employee subject to this chapter, on account of personal injury or death by accident ... shall exclude all other rights and remedies of the employee, the employee's personal representative, dependents or next of kin, at common law or otherwise, on account of the injury or death.


However, there is an exception to the general Tennessee exclusive remedy rule.  Specifically, “Tennessee courts have created an exception to the exclusivity provision for intentional torts committed by an employer against an employee; these torts give rise to a common-law tort action for damages . . . However, the employee cannot sustain a tort action against the employer under the intentional tort exception unless he can prove the employer acted with ‘actual intent’ to injure.”  Rodgers at 4 (quoting Valencia, 108 S.W.3d at 242).  The Rodgers court further noted that cases applying the “actual intent” requirement clearly show this exception to the exclusive remedy rule is very “narrow”.  Rodgers at 4.


In order to establish this exception exists, the court noted that “it is not enough merely to allege actual intent; rather, there must be alleged facts constituting an actual intent to bring about injury.  Absent allegations of facts which support actual intent, an employee cannot maintain a common law action against his employer for his work-related injuries.”  Rodgers at 7 (quoting 6 Larson’s Workers Compensation Law, § 103 (2002)).  In the Rodgers case, the plaintiff alleged the employer was aware of the dangers of the mold and fraudulently induced the employee to work in the harmful mold environment.  Further, the claim was the employer disseminated information to the employees that there was no harmful mold inside the area where the deceased was working when the employer knew this was false.  Despite these allegations the Tennessee Court of Appeals found the allegations were simply not sufficient to trigger the exception to the exclusive remedy rule and therefore dismissed the claim on this basis because the only remedy was through Tennessee Workers Compensation law.


This case shows how strong the exclusive remedy rule is in Tennessee.  Additionally, the main exception to the exclusive remedy rule, the intentional tort exception, is a very narrow exception that is construed in a very limited fashion by Tennessee courts.  Tennessee courts have a long history of making sure that very few cases come within the intentional tort exception to the Tennessee Workers’ Compensation exclusive remedy rule.


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TAGS: Defenses, Tennessee Workers Compensation, Immunity
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Jason A. Lee is a Member of Burrow Lee, PLLC. He practices in all areas of defense litigation inside and outside of Tennessee.

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Jason A. Lee, Member of Burrow Lee, PLLC
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