You’ve probably heard (or even used) phrases that exaggerate a difficult situation at work: “You’re killing me over here” or “This job will be the death of me” or “I’m heading for an early grave with the work you’re piling on me” or “You’re working me to death.” But what if these phrases aren’t intended as exaggerations, but actual accusations? Is it possible for an employer to work an employee to death? A pending case in Ohio is putting this theory to the test.
The tragic case of Beth Jasper is a nightmare for any family and employer. She was a nurse at the Jewish Hospital in Cincinnati, and by all reports was very skilled and hardworking. She was one of the few nurses at the hospital qualified to work the dialysis machines that were critical to patient care, which was both a blessing and a curse.
On one hand, Jasper enjoyed the opportunity to provide this care to her patients. On the other hand, her family claims that she often felt as if she was being pulled in many different directions, and that she was routinely called into work while off duty to handle this function. Her family also claims that the hospital was regularly understaffed, which caused the nurses to work through breaks and pick up additional shifts. It got to the point, Jasper’s family says, that hospital staffers, including her supervisor, complained to the administrators about the situation; however, sufficient relief was not provided.
In March 2013, Jasper worked a 12-hour shift before departing the hospital; her family alleges that Jasper told her co-workers as she was leaving that she was “really stressed” and hadn’t eaten because of her work. While heading home in her car, she died in a single-car accident after her vehicle veered off the road, jumped an embankment and struck a tree.
Several months ago, Jasper’s surviving family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against her employer, claiming that she was “worked to death” by the hospital. The lawsuit alleges that fatigue from excessive work was the primary cause of the fatal accident, alleging that it is likely that she fell asleep while behind the wheel. Specific to this industry, the family points out that chronic understaffing at hospitals is rampant throughout the country, and that this problem should have been avoided with the implementation of safe staffing ratios.
Wrongful death claims of this type are certainly rare, because employers are rarely accused of contributing to the death of their own employees. However, what legal obligations did the hospital have in this case? What are the chances of Jasper’s family prevailing? And what lessons can be learned from this tragedy?
The employer in this case, like every one across the country, had a duty to provide its employees a safe working environment. State negligence laws, and federal OSHA regulations, demand that employers act reasonably when it comes to their employees’ safety. Certainly this means offering safe working conditions, and besides some general obligations, each industry has its own specific requirements whether the location is a construction site, a warehouse, a delivery vehicle or a white-collar cubicle.
Most employers understand these risks, and those in physically demanding or dangerous fields usually have a vibrant safety committee and other mechanisms in place to prevent serious injuries or death while at work. The average employer is probably familiar with the requirements in its particular field and likely has taken reasonable steps to offer a safe workplace for workers.
But the Jasper case brings up another issue: What obligation do employers have to their employees once they leave the workplace? After all, Jasper’s death occurred when she was driving her own personal car while off-duty and outside the control and supervision of her superiors. Employers are often cautioned not to get involved with the personal lives of their employees, generally keeping their hands off the activities of their workers once they are clocked out and off the premises.
For these reasons, it will likely be very difficult for Jasper’s family to prevail in their wrongful death lawsuit against the hospital. In fact, at the time of publication, a motion to dismiss is pending that would end the lawsuit altogether. No matter how difficult or stressful her job was, a court will likely find that employees have to take personal responsibility for their own actions outside of work. Unless the employer was on direct notice that it was causing an employee to put herself at risk, and ignored those warning signs, it is doubtful that an employer would be held accountable for Jasper’s accident.
The lesson to be learned from this case is that employers should monitor the working situation of their employees and ensure that they are being treated in a fair and reasonable manner. If employees complain about working conditions, employers should respond to each complaint and document efforts. If the employer becomes aware that any aspect of the job is causing problems for employees — whether on or off the clock — a supervisor should privately discuss the situation with the employee to see if anything can be done.
Perhaps a reasonable accommodation or some other adjustment to the working environment might be necessary to ensure the safety of employees and the general public. After all, even if a court vindicates the hospital in this lawsuit, you can be sure that there will be no winners in this case, and the outcome will be one that everyone would have rather avoided in the first place.
Rich Meneghello is a partner in the Portland office of Fisher & Phillips LLP. Contact him at (503) 205-8044, or follow him on Twitter at @pdxLaborLawyer. A version of this column originally appeared in Daily Journal of Commerce (Oregon), sister publication to The Daily Record.