Every year, thousands of workers in the United States are injured in incidents involving forklifts. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), some of the most common types of accidents include:
- lifts being inadvertently driven off of loading docs
- lifts falling between docks and unsecured trailers
- workers being struck by a lift driven by another worker, and
- workers falling off of elevated pallets.
As a result of the prevalence of injuries related to forklifts, OSHA promulgates regulations on proper usage. OSHA estimates that most injuries involving forklifts result from violations of these regulations.
Often, when a worker is injured as a result of an accident involving a forklift, the worker will be entitled to compensation as a result of the injuries. There are three basic ways that a worker might be able to obtain compensation:
- a workers’ compensation claim
- a personal injury lawsuit, or
- a products liability lawsuit.
Let's take a closer look at each of these types of legal actions in the context of forklift-related injuries.
A Workers’ Compensation Claim
Workers’ compensation rules entitle injured employees to get compensation for work-related injuries, by filing a claim with an insurance fund that most employers are required to pay into. It's a no-fault system, meaning the employer need not have caused or contributed to the injury in order for the worker to collect. As a result, employees can almost always recover compensation for forklift injuries via a workers’ compensation claim.
The amount of compensation varies by state and is often based on a complex formula. And even though the amount of compensation available through workers compensation is almost always less than the amount that would be available in a personal injury lawsuit (if one were available), employees cannot opt out of workers’ compensation. It's almost always the injured employee’s exclusive remedy.
A Personal Injury Lawsuit
But workers’ compensation rules only apply to the workers’ direct employer. Think of how many people and entities are involved in most construction projects: a general contractor, an owner, multiple subcontractors, an architect, engineers. If a worker injured in a forklift accident wants a larger recovery than workers’ compensation provides, that worker need only prove that some person or entity other than the worker’s direct employer should be liable.
In order for a worker to prevail in a lawsuit against a defendant, the defendant must have had a duty to provide for the safety of the worker. The parties (such as the contractor or owner) who have responsibility for ensuring safety at the construction site have a duty to each worker at the site to provide a safe work environment. Also, any party that exercises decision making power at a construction site usually has a duty to provide for forklift safety. So, if the owner of the building regularly directs workers about what to do and how to do it, that owner may be liable for unsafe forklift practices.
The next step is to show how the defendant breached the duty of care (the key to most negligence claims). Any violation of the OSHA regulations linked above will generally be considered a breach of the duty of care. Violations of other safety practices or industry standards can also amount to a breach of a duty of care.
Finally, the injured worker must show that the defendant's breach of the duty of care resulted in actual damages. In personal injury cases the most common types of damages include:
- medical expenses
- lost wages (for time missed from work due to the injury)
- pain and suffering, and
- loss of normal life (the decreased quality of a person’s life as a result of the injury).
A Products Liability Lawsuit
Sometimes, a worker may be injured by a defective forklift. In such a situation, the designer, manufacturer, or seller of the lift may be liable for the worker’s injuries. In order to prevail in a products liability lawsuit resulting from a forklift accident, a worker must prove three elements:
- that a defect rendered the forklift unreasonably dangerous when it left the defendant’s control
- that the forklift was being used in a foreseeable manner at the time of the injury, and
- that the defect caused the worker’s harm.
Unreasonably Dangerous. If a designer, manufacturer, or seller sells a forklift with an unreasonably dangerous defect, that entity may be liable for any injuries that result. There is no requirement that the defendant knew of the defect or that the defendant did anything wrong to create the defect. All that matters is that the forklift was defective when it left the control of the defendant.
So, imagine that due to uncontrollable circumstances, a manufacturer’s machinery malfunctioned and over- pressurized the fuel tank of a forklift. The manufacturer then sold the forklift to a roofing company. While an employee of the roofing company was operating the forklift at a construction site, the tank exploded. Even though the manufacturer may not have acted negligently, it will still likely be liable for the worker’s injuries because the forklift was defective when it left the manufacturer’s control.
Foreseeable Use. Designers, manufacturers, and sellers usually escape liability when their forklifts are modified or used improperly. For example, imagine a worker straps rocket boosters to a forklift to increase speed. The forklift topples over when the worker tries to turn, injuring the worker. The worker will probably not be able to sue the manufacturer of the forklift because the worker was using the lift in an unforeseeable manner.