Wis. Supreme Court to Determine Worker’s Compensation Case

The Wisconsin Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on Tuesday, September 23 in a case that will decide whether the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) preempts the State of Wisconsin from imposing penalties for safety violations under Wisconsin laws. 



An employee (Tonya Wetor) was injured on the job while working at Sohn Manufacturing. Wetor was cleaning a machine when her hand was pulled into the machine, causing severe injuries. Sohn Manufacturing’s practice at the time was to clean the machines while they were running. The state investigated the accident and determined that Sohn Manufacturing had not complied with OSHA standards and Wisconsin’s Safe Place Statute (Wis. Stat. § 101.11).

During the worker’s compensation hearing, the issue was whether Sohn Manufacturing was liable for a penalty payment under Wis. Stat. § 102.57, which provides an extra 15 percent of the damages award, capped at $15,000, when employees’ workplace injuries are caused by their employer’s safety violations.

The administrative law judge determined that the injury was caused by Sohn Manufacturing’s violations of the OSHA standard and Wisconsin Safe Place Statute and therefore ordered the company to pay the 15 percent payment penalty.

The case was appealed to the Court of Appeals, which affirmed the administrative law judge’s decision.


Arguments before the Supreme Court

The main issues before the Supreme Court is whether the State of Wisconsin may use OSHA standards or the Wisconsin Safe Place Statute (Wis. Stat. § 101.11) to inspect private workplaces and impose penalties under Wis. Stat. § 102.57. Specifically, Sohn Manufacturing argues that the federal law (OSHA) preempts both § 102.57 and the Wisconsin Safe Place Statute and therefore the State of Wisconsin has no authority to issue the 15 percent payment penalty under § 102.57. 

According to Sohn Manufacturing, OSHA preempts Wis. Stat. § 102.57 because the alleged violation of the state statute is predicated on the violation of an OSHA standard. The company argues that states may regulate occupational health and safety only by submitting state plans to OHSA for approval, or by limiting the state regulation to areas in which no OSHA standard exists.

Wisconsin has not submitted any such plan to OSHA. In addition, the lower courts determined that Sohn Manufacturing violated an OSHA standard relating to the control of hazardous electrical energy. Therefore, Sohn Manufacturing argues that state enforcement of Wisconsin Stat. § 102.57 has crossed into the federal’s regulatory space and therefore is preempted.

A decision by the Wisconsin Supreme Court is expected by the end of July 2015.