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Utah High Court Revives Chevron Refinery Case

(CN) - The Utah Supreme Court reinstated the claims of a Chevron refinery employee who accused her supervisors of asking her to initiate a chemical reaction that they knew was dangerous.

Jenna Helf said her injuries were caused by a chemical reaction at the Salt Lake City Refinery in 1999, after her supervisors told her to neutralize toxic sludge through a chemical reaction in an open-air pit.

She claimed that another Chevron employee initiated an identical reaction in the same open-air pit, just hours prior to her injury, creating a large purple cloud that set off chemical alarms as it drifted across the refinery. As a result of the reaction, several workers were sent home due to illness.

In the aftermath, Helf said Chevron did not take any safety measures, such as locking out the sulfuric acid or pumping out the open-air pit. Instead, the oil company allegedly decided to resume the process later in the evening after a shift change and under cover of night.

Helf said her supervisors neither warned her about the earlier incident nor instructed her that she would need special respiratory protection. Because of her exposure to the toxic gases, Helf said she now suffers from a permanent seizure disorder.

She sued Chevron for damages, claiming that her injuries fall within the intentional injury exception to the Workers' Compensation Act.

The lower court dismissed her lawsuit, but the state high court reversed.

"Helf's complaint successfully pled facts that, when viewed in the light most favorable to her, demonstrate an intent to injure on the part of her supervisors who, regardless of their motivations, knew or expected that she would be injured when she re-initiated the neutralization process," Justice Parrish wrote.

The court reaffirmed the intent-to-injure standard, but cautioned courts to keep the distinction between intent and motive when applying the test.

"The distinction between intent and motive is particularly important in applying the 'intent to injure' standard," Parrish wrote, "because an intentional injury may arise in instances where the employer intentionally placed an employee in harms way, but the employer's motive was to increase profits - not to inflict injury."

Justice Wilkins dissented in part, saying that "although I agree the district court got the law wrong, I believe it got the result right."

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