Workers compensation exclusive remedy provisions apply for a general contractor who hired a subcontractor who was injured on a construction project, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court said in a ruling that reversed a $1.5 million liability judgment for an injured worker.
Tullytown, Pa.-based Worthington Associates Inc. hired Langhorne, Pa.-based Patton Construction Inc. to perform carpentry work while building an addition to a church, court records show
Patton's sole employee and shareholder is Earl Patton, who hurt his back in 2001 when he fell at Worthington's job site. Mr. Patton and his wife sued Worthington for allegedly providing unsafe working conditions, records show. Worthington argued that it was Mr. Patton's employer, and therefore the company should be immune from Mr. Patton's liability suit under workers comp exclusive remedy rules.
A Bucks County, Pa., Court of Common Pleas jury was asked in 2010 to weigh whether Mr. Patton was an independent contractor of Worthington who would be allowed to sue to pursue a tort remedy, or whether he was a Worthington employee whose exclusive remedy would be workers comp, records show. Court filings noted that Worthington hired Patton Construction to perform work on its job site, and not Mr. Patton personally.
The jury found that Mr. Patton was an independent contractor of Worthington, and therefore outside the exclusive remedy rules, and awarded him $1.5 million in his lawsuit, records show. That decision was affirmed by a Pennsylvania Superior Court in 2012.
Pa. high court reverses
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court unanimously reversed the lower court rulings Wednesday, saying that employees of conventional subcontractors are also employees of general contractors.
Whether “he acted in a personal or corporate capacity, Mr. Patton's relationship with the owner here was undeniably a derivative one, arising per a conventional subcontract with a general contractor (Worthington),” the ruling reads. “Again, under longstanding precedent, neither Patton Construction Inc., nor Mr. Patton was an 'independent contractor' relative to Worthington.”
The case was remanded for further proceedings.
In a concurrent opinion, Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Max Baer said he was constrained by Pennsylvania workers comp law to agree with the majority. However, he said allowing general contractors to have the same workers comp immunity as traditional employers is an “irrational relic of a bygone era” that can leave subcontractor employees left uncovered when injured on a job site.
“I respectfully urge our colleagues in the General Assembly to eliminate the doctrine, so that it no longer serves as blanket immunity for general contractors, thwarting a victim's right to recover from a tortfeasor, and an innocent subcontractor employer's right to recoup workers compensation payments through subrogation; while adversely impacting worker safety by eliminating the traditional consequences (money damages) when a general contractor's negligence harms a subcontractor's employee,” Judge Baer's opinion reads.