Zeferino Vasquez was paralyzed from the waist down when a hay bale cutting machine made by Double-Press Mfg. started unexpectedly while he was cleaning it and crushed his spine. He filed a workers’ compensation claim against his employer, but workers’ compensation provides no payment for pain, suffering or the loss of a normal life. He brought an action against Double-Press for negligence, and a Multnomah County jury awarded him $ 6.2 million, including $4.8 million in damages for pain and suffering, also called “noneconomic damages.” An Oregon statute provides that noneconomic damages are limited to $500,000 in claims for injury, a provision that hurts those who have suffered the most grievous injuries, and would otherwise be entitled to larger lifetime awards — people like Mr. Vasquez. Double-Press argued that $4.3 million of the jury’s award should therefore be taken away.
But the $500,000 limit has an exception. It doesn’t apply to claims that are “subject to” the workers’ compensation laws. Mr. Vasquez argued that, because he suffered his injury on the job, his claim against the machine’s manufacturer was “subject to” workers compensation law, so the $500,000 limit didn’t apply. The Oregon Court of Appeals rejected that argument, but on April 4, 2019, the Oregon Supreme Court held that the $500,000 limit on noneconomic damages does not apply to cases filed in court by workers who were “injured in the course of their employment.” The jury’s whole award will be paid.
Efforts continue to roll back the $500,000 cap in the Legislature and in other contexts, but this decision takes a substantial bite out of the limitation so that the most seriously injured Oregonians hurt on the job may ask a jury of their peers to decide their economic fate without a one-size-fits-all restriction.
TCNF Partner James S. Coon wrote the argument on behalf of the Oregon Trial Lawyers Association.