Worked to Death?

Can an employee die from too much work?” It seems inconceivable that such a scenario could take place in America today unless it involved undocumented aliens who were being forced to work in sweatshops by exploitative employers or risk being turned over to immigration authorities and deported.

But, according to the family of a nurse who was killed in a single-car accident while driving home from work, being “worked to death” was essentially what led to the death of their loved one.

On March 16, 2014, Beth Jasper had just finished a 12-hour shift as a nurse at the Jewish Hospital in Cincinnati, Ohio and was driving home. Before she left the hospital that evening, Ms. Jasper had allegedly told coworkers that she was “really stressed” and “hadn’t eaten.” On her way home, her car veered of the roadway, jumped an embankment and hit a tree. A lawsuit filed by her grieving family alleges she fell asleep and that fatigue from her excessive work schedule was the primary factor that contributed to her fatal accident.

The family’s lawsuit contends that because the hospital was routinely understaffed, Ms. Jasper had to work additional shifts and often worked through rest breaks. Because she was one of the few nurses who was qualified to operate the dialysis machine critical to patient care, Ms. Jasper was regularly called into work despite being off-duty. The wrongful death suit also alleges that Ms. Jasper’s supervisor had expressed to the hospital administrators concerns about her specific situation and the hospital’s chronic under-staffing conditions, which the hospital chose to ignore or disregard.

Although under-staffing at hospitals is not uncommon and is widely recognized as an industry wide problem, the family’s complaint contends that the under-staffing conditions could have been alleviated by implementing safe staffing ratios.

What is the Duty of an Employer in this Situation?

Employers have a legal duty to provide safe working conditions to employees, but does their duty extend to situations when the employee leaves the workplace? Few if any courts would rule that employers retain any responsibility for their employee’s conduct once they leave the workplace since they no longer have control or authority over them. Employees should be responsible for their own behavior for personal decisions made outside of work. The argument is that employees like Ms. Jasper are responsible for knowing whether they are too tired to drive and should have sought an alternative to driving alone.

On the other hand, courts have held that employers are responsible where an accident was foreseeable and they took no action to prevent injury or illness–i.e., whether the hospital knew Ms. Jasper was too tired to drive and failed to intervene. However, before legal liability can be found, there must be a direct link between the employment and the injury without any intervening or superseding events or factors.

So is it foreseeable that an employee who is regularly forced to work long hours, through rest breaks and during off-days or hours, can become so routinely fatigued that she would inevitably fall asleep while driving a car home from work? Did the hospital’s practices create an unsafe work environment that led to Ms. Jasper’s fatigued condition and was it foreseeable she would drive home in such a condition?

The Importance of Reducing Stress in the Workplace

Regardless of the lawsuit’s outcome, this case underscores the importance to employers of monitoring workplace conditions and implementing policies to prevent undue stress, illness and injury. In any situation where an aspect of employment is causing problems for employees, employers should strive to determine if the problem can be addressed and remedied. In Ms. Jasper’s case, the hospital was aware of its understaffed problem and could have implemented policies prohibiting mandatory overtime and excessive workloads, routinely monitored staff work hours and used flexible scheduling when possible.

By showing concern for employee safety and identifying sources of workplace stress, the employer can improve employee morale and increase productivity.

Nanette Bentley, a spokesperson for Mercy Health Group in Cincinnati, expressed sympathy for the family but declined to comment on the pending litigation.

Castillo, a union representative, stated that “safe staffing ratios” of nurses to patients remain largely unregulated in the US. He added that California is the only state with safe staffing ratio laws. Since its passage in 2004, the California law requires nurses on general or surgical floors to care for no more than five patients at a time and nurses in intensive care units to care for no more than two.

Contact The Law Offices of Alex G. Tovarian

If you know or suspect that your employer is not providing you a safe working environment, or should your employer not be offering or providing you with regular meal and rest periods, it is possible that your rights are being violated.

Alex G. Tovarian is a Bay Area employment law attorney who represents the rights of employees in meal and rest break cases, wage and hour violations, rest period violations and other employment law issues. Contact him today for an evaluation of your employment law case or visit his website at www.agt-lawyers.com.

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