Ignorance is Not a Defense

ignoranceA recent court decision by the West Virginia Supreme Court affirmed that it is, indeed, the employer’s duty to conduct safety inspections. No, you can’t claim that you had no idea there was a problem. The railroad car manufacturer AFC Industries found out the hard way that ignorance is not a defense.

McComas vs. AFC Industries, LLC is the result of a case brought forth by David McComas, a welder for AFC. McComas, along with two others, had been assigned to a portion of the plant that had previously been out of operation and had all the electrical power shut off. McComas tried to restart the power for one of the electrical boxes when an arc blast occurred. He was violently thrown to the floor and suffered burns on over 25 percent of his body.

He was wearing all of the required safety equipment and the force was still too much to avoid injury. Upon inspection, it turned out that the box was 50 years old and AFC had never inspected it.

If they didn’t know about it- how would they know to fix it, right?


McComas sued for deliberate intent. Normally you cannot bring suit for work related injuries but if your employer acted deliberately you can seek damages. That means McComas had to prove that AFC had knowledge of unsafe working conditions. AFC argued that they had never inspected the electrical box and didn’t know there could have been a problem, so they could not be liable.

The Supreme Court disagreed with AFC and pointed out that there were safety standards in place requiring these boxes to be inspected every three-six months if they were turned on and three-six years if they did not have power. AFC still stuck to their guns and defended their (lack of) action.

This is what the court had to say.

“The Legislature did not intend to allow employers to shirk responsibilities imposed by specific statutes, rules, regulations or standards by turning a blind eye to workplace hazards. Willful ignorance…is no defense…”

Hopefully this case will set an example for other employers who deliberately ignore safety practices. These standards are there for a reason, to prevent injuries to employees. Ideally workplaces should become more proactive rather than reactive in regards to injuries, and ignorance is far from a proactive method to reduce injuries.

Source: The West Virginia Record


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