In Georgia, workers’ compensation is intended to provide employees with an “exclusive remedy” against their employers for job-related accidents. This means that the employer is required to pay certain benefits, regardless of fault. In exchange, the employee has no legal right to pursue a personal injury lawsuit against the employer. The exclusive remedy rule does not, however, apply to third parties whose negligence may have contributed to the accident.
Felker v. Tyson Foods, Inc.
Of course, there are scenarios in which a third party may try and claim protection under the workers’ compensation law as “statutory employers.” Here is a recent example of such an attempt. In this case, Felker v. Tyson Foods, Inc., the plaintiff worked as an electrician. The defendant hired an electrical contractor to assist in some renovation work on one of its facilities. The plaintif, in turn, worked for the contractor.
On the day in question, the plaintiff needed to climb a ladder and enter a heating and air duct so he could install some conduit. For safety, the plaintiff secured himself to the ceiling using a harness. The plaintiff managed to work on top of the duct for several hours “until it loosened and fell to the ground,” according to court records. As a result of the fall, the plaintiff sustained injuries to his hip and head.
The plaintiff subsequently sued the defendant, as the owner of the building, alleging it “failed to exercise ordinary care” in properly attaching the heating and air duct to the ceiling. In federal court, the defendant moved for summary judgment, arguing it was the plaintiff’s “statutory employer” and therefore immune from personal injury claims under Georgia workers’ compensation law.
The judge rejected that argument. A “statutory employer” in this context refers to someone who contracts or subcontracts part of its job of “furnishing goods or services.” The defendant in this case manufactures prepackaged chicken products. The plaintiff was not hired to assist in this task. Rather, he was hired to perform electrical work on a facility used to make the chicken products. But this did not, the judge explained, mean the defendant “sublet its obligation to make chicken products” to the plaintiff.
That said, the judge still granted summary judgment to the defendant for reasons unrelated to workers’ compensation. Specifically, the judge held that the plaintiff’s underlying negligence claim failed under Georgia premises liability law. A property owner is only liable for injuries to invited guests caused by a “failure to exercise ordinary care in keeping the premises and approaches safe.” This means the owner must have “superior knowledge” of a safety hazard. But in this case, the judge said there was no evidence of any known “defect” in the defendant’s building. To the contrary, the plaintiff’s own conduct led to the accident, as he was working on top of the duct in an unsafe position. And the ducts themselves met the “base industry standard.” So, to the extent any hazard existed, the plaintiff had at least equal knowledge of the problem.