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  • WisBar News
    August 19, 2013

    Appeals Court Upholds Additional Compensation for Workplace Safety Violations

    Aug. 19, 2013 – State and federal laws require employers to maintain a safe workplace. Recently, a state appeals court clarified that federal law does not preempt an injured party’s ability to get additional compensation under state worker’s compensation law.

    In Sohn Manufacturing Inc. v. LIRC, 2012AP2566 (Aug. 7, 2013), a three-judge panel rejected an employer’s argument that federal law preempts state law requiring employers to pay penalties when workplace safety violations cause injuries.

    The court also rejected the alternative argument that Wisconsin’s safe place statute does not authorize additional compensation for violations of federal law.

    Tanya Wetor severely injured her hand while cleaning a machine at Sohn Manufacturing, which had employees cleaning machines while they were still running.

    This practice violated federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards and Wisconsin’s safe place statute, Wis. Stat. 101.11.

    Under section 102.57, employers who cause injuries by failing to comply with any “statute, rule, or order of the department” must pay, to the injured party, a penalty of 15 percent above any worker’s compensation award, capped at $15,000.

    An administrative law judge ordered Sohn to pay the additional 15 percent for workplace safety violations causing Wetor’s injury. The Labor and Industry Review Commission (LIRC) affirmed, and the circuit court affirmed LIRC. Sohn appealed.

    First, the appeals court rejected Sohn’s argument that section 102.57 constitutes enforcement of federal safety laws, and Wisconsin lacks regulatory authority.

    “We disagree as § 102.57 is not an enforcement statute but rather a worker’s compensation law,” wrote Judge Paul Reilly.

    “Sohn has not overcome the presumption that the OSH Act permits states to increase worker’s compensation awards due to workplace safety statutes.”

    Second, Sohn argued that LIRC improperly relied on the OSHA violation to impose a penalty, because section 102.57 does not contemplate violations of federal law.

    “Contrary to Sohn’s assertion, LIRC did not rely on Sohn’s violation of the OSHA standard to establish that Sohn had failed ‘to comply with any statute, rule, or order of the department,’” Judge Reilly wrote. “Sohn’s violation of the OSHA standard was evidence that Sohn violated Wisconsin’s safe place statute.” 

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