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Injured independent contractor can't pursue civil suit

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An injured North Dakota driver, who was awarded workers compensation benefits, can’t pursue a civil suit against the trucking company he was under contract with, despite being classified as an independent contractor, the state Supreme Court has ruled.

Merwin Carlson was injured in a traffic accident on July 8, 2005 while hauling freight as a trucker for West Fargo, North Dakota-based GMR Transportation Inc., court records show. He filed a claim for workers compensation benefits, but GMR said he was an independent contractor and not an employee.

However, North Dakota Workforce Safety and Insurance issued a notice on Oct. 3, 2006 stating that Mr. Carlson was an employee and awarded him benefits, according to records.

Despite not being licensed to practice law in North Dakota, two out-of-state attorneys for GMR argued that Mr. Carlson was an independent contractor, records show. Workforce Safety and Insurance then reversed its decision in early 2007 and ordered Mr. Carlson to repay the previously awarded disability and medical benefits.

According to records, Mr. Carlson requested a rehearing and, in September 2007, an administrative law judge found that he was an independent contractor and not entitled to benefits. Mr. Carlson appealed to the North Dakota Supreme Court.

The state Supreme Court said the request by GMR’s out-of-state attorneys was void, and that the original decision to award Mr. Carlson benefits couldn’t be reheard or appealed, records show.

The high court remanded the matter to Workforce Safety and Insurance to calculate Mr. Carlson’s average weekly wage, but it again determined that Mr. Carlson was an independent contractor, according to records.

The North Dakota Supreme Court reversed its decision, finding that Workforce Safety and Insurance’s “exercise of its continuing jurisdiction was beyond the scope of our remand,” records show. It was decided that Mr. Carlson’s average weekly wage was $722.

Mr. Carlson then filed a tort suit against GMR, saying it failed to comply with the state’s workers comp requirements, according to records.

The District Court of Cass County in Fargo, North Dakota, granted summary judgment dismissing the action because it wasn’t clear that “GMR willfully misrepresented to WSI or its representative the amount of payroll upon which a premium for workers compensation coverage was based,” records show.

Mr. Carlson and his wife Denise Carlson appealed. And on May 27, the North Dakota Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the district court didn’t err in finding that “GMR did not lose its employer immunity under the workers compensation laws.”