Is a Georgia Employer’s “Aggravation” of an Employee’s Car Accident Injuries Covered by Workers’ Compensation?

Workers’ compensation represents a legislatively imposed bargain between employees and employers. The bargain works like this: If the employee is injured in the course of employment, the employer agrees to pay certain medical and wage-replacement benefits. The employer is not required to admit fault for the accident, and the employee is not allowed to file a personal injury lawsuit seeking damages outside of the workers’ compensation system.

Savannah Hospitality Services, LLC v. Scriven

A recent decision from the Georgia Court of Appeals, Savannah Hospitality Services, LLC v. Scriven, clarifies the “exclusive remedy” nature of workers’ compensation. This case involves a 2016 auto accident. The plaintiff was driving a vehicle owned by his employer at the time. He subsequently filed a personal injury lawsuit against the driver and owner of the other vehicle. (Such third-party claims are not covered by workers’ compensation.)

The plaintiff also sued his employer, alleging it was “negligent in failing to provide him with access to medical insurance coverage after the accident, and that this failure exacerbated his injuries and led to his suffering multiple strokes.”

The employer moved to dismiss the claims against it, arguing that the workers’ compensation system provided the “exclusive remedy” to resolve the plaintiff’s grievances. The trial court dismissed the plaintiff’s claim for negligence, but it said the plaintiff could still argue the employer prevented him from obtaining health care benefits. The judge did not directly address whether workers’ compensation covered this particular type of claim.

The Court of Appeals held this was a mistake. Although the parties dispute whether or not the accident itself occurred while the plaintiff was “acting in the scope of his employment,” the relevant issue here actually relates to the subsequent “aggravation” of the plaintiff’s accident injuries due to the employer’s alleged failure to provide medical care. As a matter of law, the appeals court explained, the “aggravation by continued work of a previous injury is a ‘new accident.’”

In other words, let us say an employee is injured in a clearly non-work accident. Obviously, that is not covered by workers’ compensation, as the employer was not involved. But if that same employee returns to work, and as a result aggravates the prior injury, then the employee is protected by workers’ compensation.

In this case, the Court of Appeals said there was a “causal connection” between the plaintiff’s job and the “exacerbation” of his injuries due to the employer’s “alleged denial of access to care.” There was therefore no disputing the basis of the plaintiff’s claim for damages was an injury that “arose out of and in the course of” his employment. The plaintiff therefore could not maintain a personal injury lawsuit against his employer, and the employer was entitled to dismissal.

Again, it is important to reiterate the Court’s decision does not affect the plaintiff’s ability to sue the negligent driver–who was not related to the plaintiff’s employer–for damages. The plaintiff can still pursue a workers’ compensation claim against his employer.