Florida’s First District Court of Appeals recently issued two opinions in one case, Villalta v. Cornn Intl., that assessed whether workers’ compensation statutory immunity applied to a contractor and subcontractor. A construction worker was finishing drywall when his ladder slipped into a cutout left by other subcontractors. He fell through the cutout and died from his injuries, and the personal representative of his estate brought suit against the contractor and all subcontractors tied to the project.
A Florida construction contractor hired two subcontractors, one for drywall installation, and one for HVAC installation. The drywall subcontractor hired their own subcontractor to do the finishing. The sub-subcontractor employed the deceased plaintiff. The cutout that caused the plaintiff to fall was made by the HVAC subcontractors, who did not warn the other subcontractors of its presence or use the proper guidelines to ensure safety of the area. Workers’ compensation was available to the deceased’s workers family, but they elected to also pursue a personal injury action against all liable parties.
Florida’s workers’ compensation is a state-mandated insurance fund designed to provide injured workers or their families with the compensation they need when an employee is injured or killed at work. Because compensation is ensured, Florida also grants immunity to employers unless they committed an intentional tort, and to fellow subcontractors unless there was gross negligence. When the injury or death occurs on a construction site, the relationships are assessed to determine which statutory immunity applies, if at all.
The Court decided that the contractor was immune from a personal injury suit because they were in a vertical relationship, defined in Mena v. J.I.L. Construction Group, Latite Roofing & Sheet Metal Co. v. Barker, and also Dempsey v. G & E 3Construction Co. The only exception to immunity is when an intentional tort (when someone has been hurt purposefully) has occurred, and the Court ruled that it didn’t exist in this case. The HVAC subcontractor is also granted immunity, however the exception is merely gross negligence (willful and wanton misconduct) instead of an intentional tort.
After litigation began, the HVAC subcontractor moved for summary judgment, arguing that they are entitled to immunity. The trial court initially agreed, but the Florida Court of Appeals looked at the facts and ruled that it was for a jury to decide whether or not the events that led to the employee’s death were gross negligence or standard negligence. The deceased employee and his representative now get to move forward in the personal injury suit against the HVAC contractor.
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