What's the Difference Between Recklessness and Intentional Wrongdoing?

raleigh nc workers comp lawyersThe legal concepts of willful, wanton and reckless negligence on the one hand, and intentional conduct on the other are difficult to define and difficult to distinguish from each other. Raleigh injury lawyers selected an accident case as an example of gross negligence:

The North Carolina Supreme Court discussed these legal concepts and distinguished them from each other in the case of Pleasant v. Johnson, 312 N.C. 710 (1985). This case is a leading North Carolina case dealing with the subject of whether an injured worker may sue a co-worker for misconduct which results in an injury by accident.  

In the case Mr. Pleasant sued Mr. Johnson in state court (not in the workers’ compensation arena before the North Carolina Industrial Commission) and alleged that he was injured at work because the defendant, Mr. Johnson was “willfully, recklessly, and wantonly negligent."

Mr. Johnson’s lawyers argued that the allegations of willful, reckless and wanton negligence were insufficient to allege a tort which would support the plaintiff’s action. (The term “tort” is simply a legal term meaning wrongdoing.) In other words, Johnson argued that for Mr. Pleasant to allege willful, reckless and wanton conduct was not sufficient to constitute intentional wrongdoing on the part of Mr. Johnson.  

This issue was important because under North Carolina’s workers’ compensation law, an injured worker may not sue a co-employee for injuries caused by the negligent conduct of the co employee. An exception to that rule was that an injured worker may recover for his or her injuries if the conduct of the offending employee was “intentional.”

The North Carolina Supreme Court in Pleasant v. Johnson held that although the defendant Johnson did not intend to cause injury to Pleasant, Johnson could still be sued outside of the North Carolina workers’ compensation arena because of Johnson’s willful, reckless and wanton negligence.

What was Johnson’s misconduct?  The evidence showed that Pleasant and Johnson were employees of Electricon, Incorporated.  On May 13, 1980, Pleasant returned to work from lunch to the construction site where he and the defendant Johnson were working. As Mr. Pleasant walked across the parking lot towards the job site, Johnson drove a truck and struck Mr. Pleasant, seriously injuring his right knee.  

The defendant Johnson testified that he had only been joking or “horse playing” at the time of the accident. Johnson testified that he had intended to only scare Pleasant by blowing the horn and by operating the truck close to him.

In discussing the terms in question, the North Carolina Supreme Court speaking through Justice Burley Mitchell noted that the court has described “wanton” conduct as an act manifesting a reckless disregard for the rights and safety of others. Justice Mitchell noted that “willful negligence” has been more difficult to define. In discussing the definition Justice Mitchell wrote:

“at first glance the phrase (willful negligence) appears to be a contradiction in terms.  The term ‘willful negligence’ has been defined as the intention failure to carry out some duty imposed by law or contract which is necessary to the safety of the person or property to which it is owed. (Citations omitted).  A breach of duty may be willful while the resulting injury is still negligent.  Only when the injury is intentional does the concept of negligence cease to play a part.  (Citations omitted).  We have noted the distinction between the willfulness which refers to a breach of duty and the willfulness which refers to the injury.  In the former only the negligence is willful, while in the latter the injury is intentional.”

Justice Mitchell goes on to state:

“Even in cases involving ‘willful injury,’ however, the intent to inflict injury may not be actual. Destructive intent to injury may also provide the mental state necessary for an intentional tort. Destructive intent to injury exists where conduct threatens the safety of others and is so reckless or manifestly indifferent to the consequences that a finding of willfulness and wantonness equivalent in spirit to actual intent is justified. Wanton and reckless negligence gives rise to destructive intent.”

North Carolina courts have acknowledged in other cases that wanton and reckless behavior may be equated with an intentional tort for certain purposes. For instance, punitive damages may be recovered in an action for an intentional tort, though not in suits for ordinary negligence. Justice Mitchell noted that, “By allowing recovery of punitive damages in cases involving wanton negligence, we have implicitly treated such cases as actions for intentional torts.”  

Justice Mitchell noted that in criminal cases wanton and reckless conduct can supply the malice necessary to support a second degree murder conviction against a defendant who killed another when driving while intoxicated.  

The Supreme Court concluded that Johnson’s actions were indeed reckless and wanton, and constituted an intentional wrong on his part.  

Before the Supreme Court decision in Pleasant v. Johnson, North Carolina has expressly rejected the argument that reckless and wanton conduct by a co-employee is an exception to the workers’ compensation rule that prevents suits against co-employees. However, the court in Johnson changed the law in this respect and held that the Workers’ Compensation Act does not shield a co-employee from common law liability for willful, wanton and reckless negligence. Injured workers may seek counsel from a Raleigh workers’ comp lawyer if they feel their co-worker’s gross negligence was the cause of their injuries.