ROBERT B. SPAWN reports on a recent unpublished decision from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division.
In a recent New Jersey case, a plaintiff-nurse filed suit against two defendant-homeowners when the nurse allegedly suffered a severe and permanent back injury while caring for the homeowners’ teenage daughter. Due to a disabling congenital condition, the daughter was physically unable to care for herself and required assistance in all aspects of daily life. Indeed, the daughter required a home caretaker to help her move to and from her bed and wheelchair. The daughter was also totally dependent on a ventilator, which further necessitated daily skilled nursing care.
On December 18, 2012, the homeowners hired the nurse to serve as the daughter’s on-site overnight caretaker. Although the homeowners had installed an elevator in their residence to facilitate their daughter’s safe movement, they did not possess a Hoyer Lift (a floor crane used to transfer a patient between two surfaces), which would have allowed the nurse to move the daughter without physically lifting her. While the homeowners acknowledged that a Hoyer Lift was necessary to avoid injury to the nurse and the daughter, they never procured a Hoyer Lift, despite the nurse’s repeated complaints. Eventually, when attempting to lift the daughter during one of her shifts, the nurse allegedly injured her lower back, and subsequently filed a complaint against the homeowners. The lower court judge granted summary judgment to the homeowners and dismissed the nurse’s complaint, reasoning that the nurse could not sue for injuries caused by the exact work she came to perform. The nurse then appealed.
The Appellate Division reversed the lower court’s decision, finding dispositive a recommendation promulgated by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (“NIOSH”), namely, that a nurse caring for a patient should not handle anything weighing above thirty-five pounds without an assistive device. Because the daughter, who weighed eighty-nine pounds, far exceeded the NIOSH limit, the Court held that the risk of the nurse sustaining an injury while caring for the daughter without some assistance from a device was both foreseeable and likely to have severe consequences. Additionally, in direct opposition to the trial court, the Appellate Division held that the nurse could sue for injuries caused by the exact work she came to perform because the homeowners retained control over the means and methods by which the nurse could move and transfer the daughter. As such, the Court concluded that the homeowners had a duty to the nurse to provide a reasonably safe place to work, and remanded the matter back to the trial court for further proceedings in line with that holding.
Please contact Robert B. Spawn if you have any questions or need assistance in connection with this subject.