The fate of a lawsuit filed by a researcher severely injured in a lab accident may come down to what her employment status was at the University of Hawaii Manoa.
Thea Ekins-Coward was a postdoctoral fellow when the explosion occurred in 2016; she filed a lawsuit against UH claiming negligence in 2017.
The question about her employment status may elevate the case to the Hawaii Supreme Court after attorneys for Ekins-Coward filed a petition to the state’s high court last month, contending she was never a UH employee.
UH lawyers, who declined to comment for this report, argue in court documents that Ekins-Coward cannot pursue restitution in court. They say her only recourse is workers’ compensation.
Although postdoctoral fellows are not considered employees while they are conducting research, a UH internal policy says they may be “treated as employees only for workers’ compensation benefits,” according to Ekins-Coward’s attorneys. They say this was not made known to her until after the explosion.
“At least at the beginning, they made it a point to say that she was not an employee,” Claire Choo, one of Ekins-Coward’s attorneys, told Civil Beat. “She only found out after she was in the hospital.”
In March, Circuit Court Judge Bert Ayabe, agreed with the university’s argument that the court did not have jurisdiction in the case. Ayabe ruled that the decision must be left up to State Department of Labor and Industrial Relations Director Leonard Hoshijo. Hoshijo could not be reached for comment.