Lamson v. American Axe & Tool Co.

177 Mass. 144, 58 N.E. 585 (1900)

Quick Summary

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Lamson (plaintiff) sued American Axe & Tool Co. (defendant) after being injured by a falling hatchet from a rack he believed to be unsafe. He had previously communicated his concerns but was told to either deal with the racks or quit his job at American.

The main issue before the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts was whether Lamson assumed the risk of injury by continuing to work with the racks. The court concluded that Lamson had indeed assumed the risk by choosing to stay employed under the known dangerous conditions.

Facts of the Case

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Lamson (plaintiff), a veteran employee at American Axe & Tool Co. (defendant), was responsible for painting hatchets and placing them on racks to dry. The drying racks, located directly above his workstation, had been recently replaced with new ones. Lamson found these new racks to be unstable and feared that hatchets could fall and cause injury.

He expressed his concerns to the company’s superintendent but was told he had two options: continue working with the racks or resign from his job. Choosing to stay, Lamson eventually sustained an injury when a hatchet fell from the rack as he had previously feared.

Procedural Posture and History

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  1. Lamson filed a lawsuit against American Axe & Tool Co. for negligence under the employers’ liability act.
  2. The case was tried in the Superior Court before Judge Lawton.
  3. Judge Lawton directed the jury to return a verdict for the defendant.
  4. Lamson appealed the decision to the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts.

I.R.A.C. Format


Issue Icon

Whether Lamson assumed the risk of injury by continuing to work with the dangerous racks despite being aware of their potential to cause harm.

Rule of Law

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An employee may assume the risk of an obvious danger, even if the fear of losing employment is a factor in deciding to face the risk.

Reasoning and Analysis

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The court found that Lamson was fully aware of the danger posed by the new racks and had even voiced his concerns. Despite knowing the risks, he chose to continue working under conditions he deemed unsafe.

The court referenced similar cases where employees who voluntarily continued to work in known dangerous conditions were found to have assumed the risk.

Since Lamson made an informed decision to stay in his position, even after being given an option to leave, he legally assumed the risk of injury.


Conclusion Icon

The court overruled Lamson’s exceptions, effectively upholding the verdict in favor of American Axe & Tool Co.

Key Takeaways

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  1. An employee who continues to work with full knowledge and comprehension of obvious dangers assumes the risk of injury.
  2. The court will uphold this principle even if one reason for an employee’s decision to face the risk is fear of unemployment.
  3. Complaints about safety conditions do not absolve an employee from assumption of risk if they choose to continue working without changes being made.

Relevant FAQs of this case

What constitutes the assumption of risk in the employment context?

An employee assumes the risk when they knowingly and voluntarily decide to engage in a risky activity or work in unsafe conditions. It’s understood that the employee has accepted the potential for harm inherent to the situation.

  • For example: a construction worker elects to use equipment they know is faulty, recognizing the dangers but proceeding without protest.

How does fear of unemployment influence an employee's assumption of risk?

Fear of unemployment can be a factor compelling an employee to assume risk, but it does not negate the legal principle. If the employee continues working despite knowing the risks, courts may still find they have assumed such risks voluntarily.

  • For example: a server continues to work at a restaurant with a known pest infestation because finding a new job would be difficult, thereby assuming the health risks.

Is an employer's duty to provide a safe workplace absolute?

No, while there is a strong expectation for employers to ensure a safe environment, certain jobs inherently carry risks, and some statutes account for this. However, any avoidable or negligent risks must be mitigated by the employer.

  • For example: While fire-fighters face inherent job risks, the employer must still provide functional protective gear and safe equipment.
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