Workers’ Compensation Immunity in Questionable Florida Employment Situation

In a recent case, a woman appealed form summary judgment entered in favor of a general contractor for whom her husband had worked. The case arose when the general contractor was managing a project at a processing plant in Miami. A plumbing company and its supplier was also on the job. A plumbing supply deliveryman delivered a steel pipe there one day in 2008.

At the site, a plumbing employee told him to take the steel pipe upstairs. He took it up to the second level. As he was walking back toward the lift, he stepped on a false ceiling and fell twenty feet to the ground. The deliveryman was left in a persistent vegetative state. His wife was appointed his guardian and sued the construction company and the plumbing company for negligence and loss of consortium.

Before she filed the lawsuit, the wife received workers’ compensation benefits from the workers’ compensation insurer for the plumbing company and the supplier. All defendants asserted workers’ compensation immunity. In Florida, workers’ compensation is the exclusive remedy for employees hurt on the job. This means employers are immune from lawsuit by their employees based in tort.

In court, the issue was whether the deliveryman was an employee of either plumbing defendant. The trial court concluded there were no genuine issues of material fact, found he was an employee, and granted summary judgment. The wife appealed. She argued there was conflicting evidence on the issue of whether he deliveryman was employed by the plumbing subcontractor or supplier at the time. She argued this was a question for the jury.

The appellate court reasoned that the workers’ compensation system is based on the fact that both employers and employees renounce their common law rights and defenses in connection with a personal injury lawsuit. The system allows for benefits regardless of fault.

Section 440.10(1)(a) of the Florida Statutes covers the special situation of contractors and subcontractors. Contractors and subcontractors that work on a project within the state are required to maintain compensation. If a contractor sublets the work to a subcontractor, all the employees of the subcontractor are deemed employed on the same project.

In this case, because the plumbing subcontractor subcontracted work from the general contractor, if the subcontractor employed the deliveryman, the general contractor would be his statutory employer. Accordingly the general contractor would also be entitled to workers’ compensation immunity. However, if the deliveryman were an employee of the supply company, not the subcontractor, none of the defendants would be entitled to workers’ compensation immunity.

The appellate court explained that in this case, there were numerous pieces of evidence to show the deliveryman was an employee of the subcontractor, including an employment application, W-2 forms, and the wife’s petition for workers’ compensation benefits. But there was also evidence that the man was an employee of the supply company, including deposition testimony from the man who owned both companies, an insurance representative, employees of the subcontractor, and more. Accordingly, the man’s employment was an issue of fact for the jury.

The appellate court explained that the president of both companies was the same person. If the man were employed by one of the companies, the president would be entitled to immunity unless he engaged in an intentional act designed to cause injury or where he was culpably or criminally negligent. Therefore, the appellate court reversed summary judgment for all defendants except the president.

If you are seriously hurt at work, contact the knowledgeable Florida workers’ compensation attorneys at Friedman, Rodman & Frank toll-free for a free consultation at (877) 448-8585.

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