Exceptions to Workers’ Compensation Immunity in Florida

Under Florida Workers’ Compensation law, employers have worker’s compensation immunity for their employees. An “employee” also means an independent contractor working in the construction industry. It does not, however, include someone who is an owner-operator of a motor vehicle who transports a haul under contract with a “motor carrier.” If an owner-operator of that vehicle is injured in an accident, it can be difficult to sort out legal liability for the injuries.

In a recent case, a single-vehicle dump truck accident hurt a plaintiff at a construction project. The defendant was a general contractor who had entered into a subcontract with a trucking company that offered to haul fill from the project to the dump. The plaintiff was a dump truck driver who had entered into a service contract with the subcontractor. The agreement between them identified the driver as an “independent contractor” and the subcontractor as a “broker.”

The subcontractor paid the plaintiff on a commission basis and the plaintiff was required to maintain his own vehicle, pay for all expenses including gas, and choose his own schedule, as well as the manner of transporting a load. While hauling a load of construction materials, the plaintiff’s dump truck turned over, injuring him. The plaintiff sued the general contractor for negligence and loss of consortium.

The general contractor moved for summary judgment. Its primary argument was that workers’ compensation immunity barred the suit. Since the plaintiff was an independent contractor in the construction industry, he counted as a statutory employee of the general contractor. The trial court agreed, granting the motion for summary judgment.

The plaintiff appealed. The issue was whether the plaintiff was hauling the load under a written contract with a “motor carrier” even though the actual contract specified the subcontractor was a “broker.” The appellate court explained that the “motor carrier” includes someone who is operating a motor vehicle used to transport a person or property over a public highway. Federal law defines a motor carrier as someone who provides transportation for compensation.

The appellate court looked at how “broker” is defined under federal law, because Florida law didn’t provide a definition for this type of situation. Under federal law, a broker is someone “other than a motor carrier” or its agent that sells or negotiates for transportation by motor carrier for money. Federal law expanded the definition of broker, but it specified that a motor carrier would not be a broker when it arranged or offered to arrange the transportation of shipments that it had bound itself to transport.

While the parties disagreed about whether definitions under federal law were relevant, the court ruled that it was relevant to determining whether the subcontractor was acting as a motor carrier. The appellate court explained that it did not matter what a company called itself. Rather, what mattered was whether the entity used its carrier authority to ship the load or chose to broker the shipment to another carrier. In other words, the issue was a factual one. The actual specific circumstances would determine the entity’s role.

In this case, there was a true issue of material fact about whether the subcontractor was a motor carrier. The subcontractor’s agreement with the contractor laid out that the subcontractor would supervise the plaintiff. There was also an issue of fact as to whether the subcontractor controlled or managed the truck used to transport the fill. Accordingly, the appellate court reversed the lower court’s grant of summary judgment.

If you are injured through the fault of another, call the experienced personal injury and workers’ compensation attorneys at Friedman, Rodman & Frank toll-free for a free consultation at (877) 448-8585.

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