Legal Newsline

Monday, October 14, 2019

Security guard can sue employer after falling down stairs

By Dee Thompson | Dec 22, 2017

TRENTON, N.J. (Legal Newsline) – Is a standard contract signed at employment ordering the employee not to file suit if injured on a customer’s premises contrary to public policy? In the case of a security guard injured at a client’s business, the answer is yes, according to a recent New Jersey Supreme Court ruling.

The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled in the case of a security guard who sustained injuries on the job that his case should be re-tried in the lower court, but only as to liability. Philip Vitale v. Schering-Plough Corp. was argued Sep. 26 and decided Dec. 11.

According to the ruling, Vitale was hired as a security guard by Allied Barton Security Services and required to sign a standard disclaimer where he agreed to waive and release all rights to assert any claims against customers of Allied in the event of any Workers' Compensation-type injury. 

According to the legal definition, a “contract of adhesion” is a standard contract where one of the parties has little or choice in agreeing to it. Vitale argued that the contract he signed to work at Allied was a contract of adhesion and contrary to public policy. 

One of Allied’s customers was Schering-Plough Corp. One of Vitale’s duties was to make sure the security officers he supervised had appropriate uniforms. 

As explained in the Supreme Court’s opinion, “On 10 to 15 occasions, Vitale descended the stairs to retrieve uniforms for the officers. While on duty on Aug. 31, 2009, Vitale fell down the stairs that led to the guardhouse basement. Another security officer turned on the light in the stairwell and saw Vitale ‘laid out at the bottom of the stairs.’ Vitale sustained injuries to his head, neck, shoulder and lower back as a result of the accident.” 

Vitale filed suit against Schering-Plough, “asserting that Schering-Plough... had negligently maintained its facility and failed to warn him of a dangerous condition, and that he was entitled to compensatory damages,” according to the opinion.

Schering-Plough moved for summary judgment, arguing that the terms of the disclaimer that Vitale had signed barred relief.

“The court denied the motion, reasoning that a ruling barring Vitale’s claims would contravene public policy. The case was tried before a jury. The court did not permit the jury to consider whether Vitale was negligent in descending the stairs without turning on the stairwell light, or to allocate fault to him," the opinion says.

"The jury determined that Schering-Plough was negligent and that its negligence was a proximate cause of Vitale’s injuries and awarded $900,000 in compensatory damages. The trial court denied Schering-Plough’s motion for a new trial.”

Schering-Plough appealed. The appellate court denied its motion for summary judgment. The Supreme Court’s opinion notes, “The panel considered the disclaimer to be a contract of adhesion that was substantively unconscionable because it was contrary to public policy.”   

Chief Justice Stuart Rabner and Justices Jaynee LaVecchia, Barry Albin, Faustino J. Fernandez-Vina, Lee Solomon, and Walter Timpone joined in Justice Anne Patterson’s opinion.  

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New Jersey Supreme Court