Chayer v. Ethan Allen, Inc.

Decision Date11 April 2008
Docket NumberNo. 06-124.,06-124.
Citation954 A.2d 783,2008 VT 45
PartiesRodney CHAYER v. ETHAN ALLEN, INC., Travelers Insurance Company, et al.
CourtVermont Supreme Court

Duncan Frey Kilmartin of Rexford & Kilmartin, Newport, for Plaintiff-Appellant.

Carrie J. Legus of Legus and Bisson, PLC, Montpelier, for Defendants-Appellees.



¶ 1. Plaintiff Rodney Chayer appeals from the trial court's grant of defendants' motion to dismiss his claim for civil damages arising out of a workplace accident for which he had previously received workers' compensation benefits. We affirm.

¶ 2. In 1996, plaintiff was employed at the Ethan Allen furniture manufacturing plant in Orleans, Vermont. As part of his employment, he operated a double-end tenoning machine. The machine includes a moving "table" — essentially a conveyor belt — on which wooden workpieces rest as they move toward the machine's saw blades. The workpieces are held in place from above by rubber pads that descend automatically. Plaintiff inadvertently placed his hand on the belt while cleaning up some debris near the machine. His hand was caught in a "pinch point" and was drawn into and amputated by the blades. His attempt to flip the machine's shutoff switch was to no avail.

¶ 3. Plaintiff's injury was compensable under the workers' compensation law, 21 V.S.A. §§ 601-711, and plaintiff has received ongoing compensation under the provisions thereof. In addition to his workers' compensation recovery, plaintiff sought civil damages against Ethan Allen, Inc., twelve named co-employees, Travelers Insurance Company, and the "Employer/Employee/Insurance Safety Committee of Ethan Allen, Inc." The civil complaint alleged that at least three of the named co-employees were members of the committee, along with Ethan Allen and Travelers. In Count I, plaintiff sought a multi-faceted declaratory judgment which, among other things, plaintiff hoped would construe all of the subsections of § 624, including subsection (h). That subsection, read literally and in isolation, would appear to allow damage claims against such a committee "in the case of gross negligence or willful misconduct." In Count II, labeled "Tort Action Against Co-Employees," plaintiff alleged that all of the defendants, including his co-employees, "by their malicious, willful, intentional, knowing, reckless, grossly negligent, and negligent failure to fulfill their duties to [plaintiff], caused the amputation of his right hand above the wrist, and the consequent damages and injuries which he has received." Count III was titled "Liability for Conducting Work Place Inspections — 21 V.S.A. § 624(h)." In this count, plaintiff alleged that the committee and its members had a duty to conduct workplace inspections, to ensure compliance with state and federal workplace-safety regulations, and to pursue remedial safety measures when appropriate. Count III further alleged that defendants "maliciously, willfully, knowingly, intentionally, recklessly, grossly negligently, and negligently failed to make the [double-end tenoning] machine safe for the use for which it was supplied, while knowing in detail" what measures they could have taken to prevent harm to plaintiff. Next, in Count IV, plaintiff generally realleged the assertions in Count III with specific reference to the co-employee members of the safety committee. Finally, plaintiff alleged in Count V that defendants had intentionally inflicted emotional distress on him by failing to take the remedial measures detailed above.

¶ 4. All defendants except Travelers responded to the complaint with a motion to dismiss, claiming that the complaint failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. V.R.C.P. 12(b)(6). Defendants asserted generally that workers' compensation benefits were plaintiff's exclusive remedy. More specifically, defendants claimed that plaintiff had failed to allege that any defendant had breached any duty other than the employer's nondelegable duty to provide a safe workplace, and that this breach of that duty was not actionable in tort due to the exclusive-remedy provisions of the workers' compensation law. The superior court agreed and granted defendants' motion.

¶ 5. On this appeal, plaintiff raises three arguments. First, he contends that 21 V.S.A. § 624(h) authorizes a tort action against an "employer-employee safety committee" when the committee engages in gross negligence or willful misconduct.1 Second, he contends that his complaint stated a claim upon which relief may be granted under that standard, and therefore should have survived defendants' motion to dismiss. Third, plaintiff argues that he has stated a claim against co-employees for negligence, even if we conclude that § 624(h) does not provide a "third party" avenue for relief. We consider the claims in turn.


¶ 6. We will affirm the trial court's grant of a motion to dismiss only when there are no facts or circumstances alleged in the complaint that would entitle the nonmoving party to relief. Amy's Enters. v. Sorrell, 174 Vt. 623, 623, 817 A.2d 612, 615 (2002) (mem.). For purposes of evaluating the motion, we take the following facts — and all reasonable inferences to be drawn from them — as true. See Faulkner v. Caledonia County Fair Ass'n, 2004 VT 123, ¶ 5, 178 Vt. 51, 869 A.2d 103.

¶ 7. Defendant Ethan Allen, Inc. was plaintiff's employer at the time of the accident. Prior to the accident, Ethan Allen had an employer-employee safety committee as that term is used in 21 V.S.A. § 624(h). The Ethan Allen defendants were present at a meeting at which the machine that amputated plaintiff's hand was characterized by plaintiff and others as inherently dangerous and inadequately protected by safety devices, in particular by brakes and guards. The operation switches, including the shutoff switch, were located in such a way as to pose a danger. One defendant had found, months before the accident, that when the machine's shutoff switch was tripped the saw blades took more than two minutes to come to a complete stop. This defendant informed several other defendants of this finding, but none took any action in response. In the six months preceding the accident, employees other than plaintiff provided written complaints to defendants about the dangers posed by the tenoning machine. None were acted on. Two weeks before the amputation, plaintiff and a co-worker delivered a written work order requesting new brakes for the machine to the maintenance department. Again, no action was taken.

¶ 8. Based on these alleged facts, plaintiff claimed that defendants had all breached the following duties owed to plaintiff:

A. The duty to provide a safe work place;

B. The duty to provide adequate safety devices on the machine on which [plaintiff] was injured;

C. The duty to maintain the machine and its safety devices, so that the machine was safe for operation;

D. The duty to timely inspect the machine for its safety hazards and defects, and to eliminate those hazards and correct those defects, which caused or contributed to its defective and unsafe condition on September 9, 1996;

E. The duty to fill or cause to be filled outstanding requests by Plaintiff and other co-employees that proper safety devices be installed, that already existing safety devices that had failed be repaired and consistently maintained;

F. That State and Federal regulations and laws concerning the safety of work places and the machine in question be consistently observed and followed[;]

G. To ensure that the double end [tenoning] machine on which [plaintiff] was working, was not defective, dangerous, unguarded, unbraked and unsafe[;]

H. To regularly inspect and take remedial action in order to prevent the machine from becoming unreasonably unsafe, defective, dangerous, unbraked, unguarded and maintained in such a manner as to become dangerous[;]

I. To determine if the machine, which amputated [plaintiff's] right wrist and hand, would endanger him by its probable use in the manner for which it was intended to be used, and upon said determination, to exercise immediate and reasonable care and to take all necessary steps to make the machine safe for the use for which it was supplied to [plaintiff], or in the alternative, prevent its use by [plaintiff] until it was placed in a safe condition for use[;]

J. To have competent engineers and other persons trained in safety and human engineering, for the purpose of inspecting [the] machine on which [plaintiff] was injured, and engineering and design appropriate safety devices in order to make the machine safe for its intended use.

¶ 9. On appeal, plaintiff first contends that 21 V.S.A. § 624(h), as amended in 1994, authorizes a third-party action by an injured employee against an employer-employee safety committee when the committee engages in gross negligence or willful misconduct that proximately causes injury to the employee. The construction of the statute presents a question of law, which we review de novo. In re Dep't of Bldgs. & Gen. Servs., 2003 VT 92, ¶ 8, 176 Vt. 41, 838 A.2d 78.

¶ 10. When interpreting statutes, we will generally apply the plain language of the enactment except when the language itself is ambiguous. Farris v. Bryant Grinder Corp., 2005 VT 5, ¶ 8, 177 Vt. 456, 869 A.2d 131. However, where the plain language is unambiguous but would lead to an absurd result that the Legislature cannot have intended, we will look beyond the language of the statute to determine the Legislature's intent. See Judicial Watch, Inc. v. State, 2005 VT 108, ¶ 16, 179 Vt. 214, 892 A.2d 191 (noting that the absurd-results doctrine "permits an otherwise reasonable construction when a plain reading of the statute `would produce a result demonstrably at odds with any conceivable legislative purpose)'" (quoting Taylor-Hurley v. Mingo County Bd. of Educ., 209 W.Va. 780, 551 S.E.2d 702, 710 (2001)).

¶ 11. The...

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