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A temporary worker who lost his arm in an accident may be able to pursue his negligence claims against a shipping company despite the exclusive liability provision of the Alaska Workers Compensation Act, according to the Supreme Court of Alaska.
In Buckley v. American Fast Freight Inc., the state’s high court in a 5-0 decision reversed a superior court ruling that dismissed the worker’s claims against a shipping company and one of its employees, holding that material issues of fact remain.
John Buckley worked for temporary employment service Labor Ready Inc., based in Anchorage, Alaska. Under the conditions of service, temporary workers needed to receive “prior written consent” from Labor Ready to work for a specific customer. The conditions also restricted Labor Ready workers from operating “dangerous machinery, mobile equipment or vehicles” and workers were paid by Labor Ready and covered by their workers compensation policy. The contracting company, however, could determine whether an employee was qualified for a particular work assignment and inform Labor Ready of any changes of work conditions.
In late 2011, Mr. Buckley was assigned to work at Fife, Washington-based American Fast Freight, where he worked 17 non-consecutive days as a general laborer, in the six weeks prior to the accident. On Dec. 22, 2011, he was out on delivery with another driver when the two were notified that one of the company’s tractor trailers was stuck in the snow nearby. In the process of trying to move the truck by putting down chains to enable the tires to get traction, the driver gunned the truck while Mr. Buckley was adjusting the chain, pulling his arm under the wheel and severing it just below the elbow. He had multiple surgeries, and eventually his right arm was amputated above the elbow. He received workers compensation benefits from Labor Ready, and the state’s Occupation Safety and Health Administration fined American Fast Freight $5,600 for the incident.
Mr. Buckley then filed a complaint against American Fast Freight and the driver for negligence. The company and employee denied liability and argued that his claims were barred by the exclusive remedy provision of the Workers compensation Act. A superior court held that the activity that led to the injury was outside of Mr. Buckley’s job duties and held that the exclusive remedy provision did apply and dismissed his complaint. Mr. Buckley appealed, and the Alaska Supreme Court reversed and remanded the case.
The court noted that Mr. Buckley and American Fast Freight disagreed about the existence of an implied contract of hire, and whether a special relationship existed between Mr. Buckley and the freight company that would provide it with protection under the exclusive remedy provision of the act. The court held that the written contract between Labor Ready and American Fast Freight showed that while American Fast Freight may have requested Mr. Buckley as a worker, Labor Ready not obligated to comply and neither the contract nor Mr. Buckley's testimony indicated that American Fast Freight retained the right to fire Labor Ready workers, or any evidence that Mr. Buckley specifically consented to the formation of an employment relationship with American Fast Freight. Therefore, the court reversed the superior court’s holding that summary judgment was appropriate for American Fast Freight on the basis that there was a special employment relationship.
The court also held that questions remain as to whether Mr. Buckley’s participation in laying tire chains was reasonably foreseeable given the prohibition in the contract and American Fast Freight's apparent rule that only drivers could use chains, and could not adopt a rule of law that brings expressly prohibited activities within the statutory definition of "arising out of and in the course of employment." Therefore, the court reversed and remanded the case.
The attorneys in the case did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Alaska Gov. Bill Walker on Friday signed into law a bill that aims to reduce administrative costs in the workers compensation system and provide a clear definition of independent contractor, thus helping to combat worker misclassification.