Florida Appeals Court Affirms Lower Court Decision in Work Injury Lawsuit

In a recent case, the Third District Court of Appeals in Florida issued an opinion in an appeal involving a tort lawsuit filed by the appellee-plaintiff, Giovanni Bastien, against the appellant-defendant, Bottling Group, LLC. Bottling Group appealed from a nonfinal order denying its motion for partial summary judgment in the tort lawsuit filed by Bastien. In their appeal, Bottling Group contends that the trial court erred in finding it was equitably estopped from presenting its workers’ compensation immunity defense. The appellate court was unconvinced, rejecting Bottling Group’s argument and affirming the trial court decision.

Bastien was employed by Bottling Group at a Pepsi packaging and distribution facility in Medley, Florida. He was seriously injured when a coworker, purportedly disgruntled over union activities, shot him several times. While Bastien was recovering in the hospital, he notified his manager that he intended to file a workers’ compensation claim. Bastien was informed that he was not entitled to benefits, and Bottling Group subsequently emailed the compensation carrier, Sedgwick, to oppose his claim. Bastien then received a notice of denial of benefits from the Florida Department of Financial Services Division of Workers’ Compensation. The notice stated that his “claim is denied in its entirety, as not a compensable accident or injury. Injury did not occur in the course or scope of employment. Accident/Injury occurred off premises . . .” Bastien then filed a tort lawsuit in the circuit court against Bottling Group’s parent company, PepsiCo, Inc. PepsiCo moved to dismiss, contending it was entitled to workers’ compensation immunity. Bastien argued that PepsiCo was equitably estopped from asserting immunity. Before the court rendered a ruling on the motion, the parties agreed to the filing of an amended complaint substituting PepsiCo with Bottling Group.

At trial, Bottling Group moved for partial summary judgment on the basis it was entitled to workers’ compensation immunity. Bastien opposed the motion, asserting that estoppel and the international tort exception precluded the operation of immunity. At the conclusion of the hearing, the trial court entered a reasoned order denying summary judgment and prohibiting Bottling Group from raising its immunity defense at trial. Bottling Group appealed shortly thereafter.

On appeal, Bottling Group contended that the trial court erred in finding it was equitably estopped from presenting its workers’ compensation immunity defense. The appeals court disagreed. The appellate decision stated that Bottling Group opposed the workers’ compensation claim on the contended basis the injuries did not occur within the course and scope of employment. Bastien accepted and relied upon the denial, bore his medical expenses, and then sued Bottling Group in tort, as permitted by the workers’ compensation statute. Given those facts, Bottling Group cannot have it both ways and was denied its immunity defense given that it denied Bastien’s compensation claim, affirming the lower court.

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