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Chicken conglomerate Tyson Farms Inc. was the co-employer of a farm manager who developed a disabling occupational disease, the Maryland Court of Appeals held Friday in a 2-1 decision.
In Uninsured Employers’ Fund v. Tyson Farms Inc., the court reversed a jury decision in favor of Springdale, Arkansas-based Tyson Farms after finding that the contract between the farm and the poultry company exercised sufficient control to establish an employment relationship.
Mario Jimenez Garcia began working for a farm that was contracted by Tyson Farms to raise chickens in 2009. In 2013, the farm was purchased by Dai Nguyen, and Mr. Garcia was the resident manager of the farm. In 2014, he was diagnosed with hypersensitivity pneumonitis and interstitial disease, which were found to be disabling occupational diseases, and filed a claim seeking compensation from Mr. Nguyen. The Uninsured Employers’ Fund became party to the claim when it was learned that Mr. Nguyen did not possess workers compensation insurance.
The Maryland Workers Compensation Commission held that Mr. Nguyen and Tyson were co-employers of Mr. Garcia and that his injuries were compensable. Tyson appealed and the Circuit Court of Worcester County in Snow Hill, Maryland, which denied the fund’s motion for judgment; a jury ultimately found in favor of Tyson.
The Uninsured Employers’ Fund appealed, arguing that the circuit court erred in denying its motion for judgment, and the Maryland Court of Special Appeals agreed and reversed the circuit court ruling.
Mr. Nguyen and Tyson maintained a contract whereby Tyson retained ownership of the chickens and dictated their feeding, care, flock maintenance and medications, as well as the right to take immediate possession of the chickens, feed and medication for any default by Mr. Nguyen. The company also provided training of Mr. Garcia, sent a representative to review farm operations one to three times per week and outlined tasks that needed to be accomplished, according to the complaint.
The UEF argued that given Tyson’s control of Mr. Garcia in the course of employment that Tyson was his employer as a matter of law. Although Tyson argued that it had “minimal contact” with Mr. Garcia and that its inspecting of the flock did not mean that the company maintained “control” of Mr. Garcia, the appellate court disagreed, holding that the company’s control over Mr. Garcia’s work was “more than sufficient to establish an employment relationship as a matter of law.”
For instance, the court noted that Tyson required Mr. Garcia to be on the farm 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and provide detailed instructions and requirements on how to raise chickens throughout their life cycle, and had the “unliteral ability to terminate its relationship” with the farm if Mr. Garcia did not comply with its requirements.
As a result, the court held that Tyson was a co-employer of Mr. Garcia at the time of his injury, and that the circuit court, therefore, erred in failing to grant UEF’s motion for judgment and reversed the ruling.
Judge Steven Bennett Gould dissented from the majority opinion, finding that the evidence allows for the reasonable inference that Tyson did not have the requisite control over Mr. Garcia to be considered his employer.
The Maryland state Senate passed a bill Tuesday that would require employers who self-insure to report workers compensation fraud to the Maryland Insurance Administration’s Fraud Division.