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Is an Employer Responsible when a Delirious Employee Bites a Nurse?

It is common for employees to become ill or injured at work. Sometimes, these maladies are severe enough for the employee to seek medical treatment at a clinic or hospital. In the case of Widlowski vs. Durkee Foods, the Illinois Supreme Court considers whether employers can be held liable when their employees seriously injure the medical personnel who treat them for ailments sustained on the job.

The Facts

On December 3, 1983, Mr. Wells was working at Durkee Foods, a spice manufacturer. As part of his job duties, he entered an industrial tank to clean it. Although the tank contained nitrogen gas and dangerously low oxygen levels, Mr. Wells did not wear protective gear. Additionally, he failed to empty the tank of nitrogen before entering it. As a result of breathing the nitrogen gas, he became incoherent and delirious. He was then taken to St. Joseph’s Medical Center, where he bit off part of a nurse’s finger.

The nurse, Ms. Widlowski, filed a lawsuit against Mr. Wells and Durkee Foods, alleging negligence (carelessness). Specifically, she claimed Mr. Wells was negligent for entering the tank without protection when he knew (or should have known) the nitrogen gas would make him ill and endanger those around him. Ms. Widlowski also said Durkee Foods was negligent for allowing its employee to enter the tank when the company knew (or should have known) the tank was filled with dangerous gas.

Negligence & the Duty of Ordinary Care

To prove negligence in Illinois, injured parties must demonstrate that the defendant has a duty to protect them from injury. The injured party must then show the defendant failed to uphold this duty, causing the injury. If injured parties are unable to prove the defendant has a duty to protect, they cannot win a lawsuit.

Illinois courts recognize that all people and businesses have a duty of ordinary care to protect against injuries that may result from their actions. In other words, if an injury or illness is foreseeable as a possible result of a person or company’s conduct, the person or company has a duty of ordinary care to protect against it. This duty does not apply only to those with whom the individual or business has a direct relationship; it may also extend to third parties.

When determining whether defendants owe a duty to the injured party under the circumstances of a specific case, Illinois courts consider four factors: the foreseeability of the injury, the likelihood of the injury, the extent to which preventing the injury is burdensome, and the consequences of imposing that burden.

The Decision

In response to Ms. Widlowski’s lawsuit, Durkee Foods filed a motion to dismiss the case. The trial court granted the motion, saying that neither Durkee Foods nor Mr. Wells owed Ms. Widlowski a duty of ordinary care because her injuries were not reasonably foreseeable given the circumstances.

She then appealed to the Illinois Appellate Court, asserting that Durkee Foods owed her a duty because the risk of injury was, in fact, foreseeable. The appellate court agreed and reversed the circuit court’s order to dismiss, saying both Durkee Foods and Mr. Wells had a duty to use proper precautions when cleaning the tank. The court also said it was reasonably foreseeable that nitrogen exposure would cause Mr. Wells to become delirious and injure others.

Durkee Foods then appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court. When determining whether a duty was owed, the Court examined not only foreseeability but also the likelihood of the injury, the burden of preventing the injury, and the consequences of imposing the burden.

Although the Supreme Court agreed that Mr. Wells’s delirium was caused by his failure to wear proper gear while cleaning the tank, it disagreed that Ms. Widlowski’s injury was reasonably foreseeable. The Court said that when Mr. Wells entered the tank, he was separated from Ms. Widlowski by both time and distance; therefore, the risk of her injury could not have been reasonably predicted. Similarly, the Court said the likelihood of her injury was low. 

The Supreme Court also considered the burden that would be placed on Durkee Foods if it had a duty to safeguard against Ms. Widlowski’s injury. The Court concluded that because Durkee Foods was not in a position to control the medical staff treating Mr. Wells, the burden of preventing the injury would have been heavy. Mr. Wells could have harmed anyone while suffering from nitrogen exposure, and imposing a duty on Durkee Foods would mean requiring the company to protect everyone in its employee’s path—something that is unreasonable.

The Supreme Court noted that determining whether one party owes another a duty of reasonable care is “complex” and “nebulous.” However, the Court also noted that there is no precedent for a duty to safeguard against situations that are “freakish,” “fantastic,” and “tragically bizarre.” Given the circumstances of this case, the Court said there was no legal support for the imposition of duty.

For all of these reasons, the Supreme Court reversed the appellate court’s decision and upheld the circuit court’s decision to dismiss the case.

Conclusion

Whether employers can be held liable for injuries their employees inflict while being treated for a workplace ailment depends on the specific circumstances. Courts will take four factors into consideration when determining responsibility: the injury’s foreseeability, the likelihood of the injury, the extent to which preventing the injury is burdensome, and the consequences of imposing that burden. Additionally, employers are typically free of responsibility if the circumstances surrounding the injury are bizarre or otherwise unpredictable.

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