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Gonzalez v. Ideal Tile Importing Co.

July 27, 2005

ARMANDO GONZALEZ AND MIRNA PADILLA GONZALEZ, PLAINTIFFS-APPELLANTS,
v.
IDEAL TILE IMPORTING CO., INC., JOHN DOE, AGENT OR EMPLOYEE, NAME BEING FICTITIOUS, KALMAR-AC OF COLUMBUS, INC., KALMAR-AC HANDLING SYSTEMS, INC., LIFT TRUCKS, INC., HENSON TRUCK & FORKLIFT SERVICE, ABC COMPANIES 6-10, NAMES BEING FICTITIOUS, JOHN DOES 2-5, NAMES BEING FICTITIOUS AND JOHN DOES 6-10, NAMES BEING FICTITIOUS, DEFENDANTS,
AND KOMATSU FORKLIFT U.S.A., INC., DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT.



On appeal from the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 371 N.J. Super. 349 (2004).

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).

The issue in this appeal is whether regulations promulgated under the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA), 29 U.S.C.A. §§ 651 to 678, preempt New Jersey products liability claims against a third-party forklift manufacturer.

Plaintiff, Armando Gonzalez, was seriously injured when he was struck by a forklift operated by a coworker. He sued the forklift's first-stage manufacturer (defendant Komatsu). Komatsu moved for summary judgment on the ground that state tort claims for workplace injuries are preempted when the allegedly defective product was manufactured in compliance with federal standards. The motion was granted.

Gonzalez appealed, claiming that OSHA only applies to employers and not to manufacturers, thus rendering preemption inapplicable. In a reported decision, a divided panel of the Appellate Division affirmed. The majority assumed, without deciding, that OSHA's forklift regulations were binding on Komatsu and not just informative or evidential of the standard of care applicable to the manufacturer or seller. Moreover, the majority concluded that Gonzalez's product liability theory was preempted as in conflict with the federal standard. The dissent concluded that Komatsu's preemption argument was without merit, in part because OSHA only applies to employers and not to manufacturers.

The case came to us as of right because of the dissent and we now affirm.

HELD: The Appellate Division's conclusions fully accord with relevant conflict preemption principles in all respects. Although a state tort action involving a third party and a work place injury could survive an Occupational Health and Safety Act (OSHA) conflict analysis, this one simply does not.

1. We agree with the dissenting judge that plaintiffs' position that OSHA regulations only apply to employers was clearly in the case from the beginning as an integral implication of the argument that OSHA does not preempt third-party tort claims. We also agree with his opinion to the extent that it can be read to hold that some third-party claims arising in the workplace may not be preempted by OSHA. We part company from him in connection with his blanket conclusion that OSHA can never preempt a third-party tort claim. (Pp. 3-4)

2. Preemption may be express or implied. Express preemption is determined from an examination of the explicit language used by Congress. In this case, the OSHA statute governs on the question of express preemption. OSHA contains a saving clause, as well as a preemption clause that states that "[n]othing in this [Act] shall prevent any State agency or court from asserting jurisdiction under State law over any occupational safety or health issue with respect to which no standard is in effect.." 29 U.S.C.A. § 667(a). The Supreme Court has concluded that the preemption clause should be read narrowly. Thus, the Appellate Division properly held that, under OSHA, state tort actions are not expressly preempted. (Pp. 4-6)

3. Field preemption occurs "where the scheme of federal regulation is 'so pervasive as to make reasonable the inference that Congress left no room for the States to supplement it.'" Gade v. Nat'l Wastes Mgmt. Ass'n, Per curiam.

Argued May 2, 2005

Plaintiff, Armando Gonzalez, was seriously injured when he was struck by a forklift operated by a co-worker. He sued the forklift's first-stage manufacturer (defendant Komatsu), contending that it should have installed additional warning devices on the machine in order to make its operation safe.*fn1

Komatsu moved for summary judgment on the ground that state tort claims for workplace injuries are preempted when the allegedly defective product was manufactured in compliance with federal standards. The motion was granted.

Plaintiff appealed, contending that the relevant federal standard, the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA), only applies to employers and not to manufacturers, thus rendering preemption inapplicable. In a reported opinion, a divided panel of the Appellate Division affirmed. Gonzalez v. Ideal Tile Importing, Inc., 371 N.J. Super. 349 (App. Div. 2004). In ruling, the court concluded that it did not need to determine OSHA's reach because both parties proceeded on the assumption that Komatsu was bound by OSHA's forklift standards. Id. at 360. Therefore, the majority assumed, without deciding, that OSHA's forklift regulations were binding on Komatsu and not just informative or evidential of the standard of care applicable to the manufacturer or seller. Ibid.

The majority next addressed whether plaintiff's state tort claim was preempted by federal law and concluded that the state regulation urged by plaintiff would stand "as an obstacle to the accomplishment and execution of" the federal regulation regarding additional warning devices, and thus determined that plaintiff's product liability theory was preempted as in conflict with the federal standard. Id. at 362.

One judge dissented. He disagreed with "the majority's understanding that plaintiffs accepted the premise that OSHA's standards govern product manufacturers because they failed to argue that OSHA applies only to employers." Id. at 371. Instead, he opined that plaintiffs' position on that issue was "clearly inferable" from their argument that OSHA does not preempt third-party tort claims. Ibid. The dissenter went on to conclude that Komatsu's preemption argument was without merit because OSHA only applies to employers and not to manufacturers. Ibid. The case came to us as of right because of the dissent. We have carefully reviewed this record in light of the claims advanced by the parties regarding preemption and now affirm.

A few comments are in order, however. First, we agree with the dissenting judge that plaintiffs' position that OSHA regulations only apply to employers was clearly in the case from the beginning as an integral implication of the argument that OSHA does not preempt third-party tort claims. We also agree with his opinion to the extent that it can be read to hold that some third-party claims arising in the workplace may not be preempted by OSHA. We part company from him in connection with his blanket conclusion that OSHA can never preempt a third-party tort claim.

Preemption may be express or implied and is compelled whether Congress' command is explicitly stated in the statute's language or implicitly contained in its structure and purpose. Absent explicit pre-emptive language, [the United States Supreme Court] has recognized at least two types of implied pre-emption: field pre-emption, where the scheme of federal regulation is so pervasive as to make reasonable the inference that Congress left no room for the States to supplement it, and conflict pre-emption, where compliance with both federal and state regulations is a physical impossibility, or where state law stands as an obstacle to the accomplishment and execution of the full purposes and objectives of Congress.

[Gade v. Nat'l Wastes Mgmt. Ass'n, 505 U.S. 88, 98, 112 S.Ct. 2374, 2383, 120 L.Ed. 2d 73, 84 (1992)(internal citations and quotations omitted).]

Express preemption is determined from an examination of the explicit language used by Congress. Jones v. Rath Packing Co., 430 U.S. 519, 525, 97 S.Ct. 1305, 1309, 51 L.Ed. 2d 604, 613 (1977). In this case, the OSHA statute governs on the question of express preemption. OSHA contains a saving clause that provides:

Nothing in this chapter shall be construed to supersede or in any manner affect any workmen's compensation law or to enlarge or diminish or affect in any other manner the common law or statutory rights, duties, or liabilities of employers and employees under any law with respect to injuries, diseases, or death of employees arising out of, or in the course of, employment.

[29 U.S.C.A. § 653(b)(4).]

OSHA also contains a preemption clause that states that "[n]othing in this [Act] shall prevent any State agency or court from asserting jurisdiction under State law over any occupational safety or health issue with respect to ...


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