Motor vehicle-related crashes are consistently the No. 1 cause of work-related deaths in the U.S., according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics. In fact, 36 percent of occupational fatalities reported to the federal agency are associated with motor vehicles.
These kinds of crashes can be particularly challenging from a civil case perspective, and the reason has to do with the exclusive remedy provision of workers’ compensation law. The provision prohibits employees (or their estates) from suing their employer and usually their co-workers for negligence where workers’ compensation insurance is available. Workers’ compensation coverage can be provided for any personal injury or death that arose out of and in the course of one’s employment.
The good thing about workers’ compensation is employees don’t have to prove negligence, and it is designed to serve as a prompt means for workers to be compensated for coverage of medical bills, lost wages and permanent disability. Unfortunately, it is generally not nearly as much as one might receive had they succeeded in a personal injury or wrongful death lawsuit.
In cases where the work-related crash was caused by a third-party driver, victims may pursue both workers’ compensation (from the employer’s insurer) as well as a negligence action against the at-fault driver/insurer.
Only in rare circumstances can workers win the right to pursue a negligence action against their employer and/or a co-worker in a work-related crash.
The recent case of Knight v. Estate of McCoy, before the Wyoming Supreme Court, reveals the kinds of challenges a plaintiff must overcome to succeed with such a claim.
According to court records, decedent had only been employed by a construction firm for a few days when he accompanied his supervisor, the owner of the company, to a work site. As they traveled down the highway, driver/company owner crossed the center line straight into the path of an oncoming semi-trailer truck. Both men – the owner/driver and new worker – were killed instantly. A toxicology test would later show owner/driver was under the influence of a significant amount of methamphetamine.
Decedent’s estate representative filed a lawsuit against the company and the owner/driver’s estate. Defendant company asserted it was immune under the state’s worker’s compensation act. Alternatively, defendant argued even if it could be held liable, the estate had elected to collect workers’ compensation death benefits and was therefore estopped from asserting claims against the company. Additionally, the estate of owner/driver countered insufficient process of service.
Trial court sided with the company with regard to the exclusive remedy of workers’ compensation, and awarded summary judgment to the employer.
However, the court found genuine issues of fact remained as to whether claims against the owner/supervisor were barred under the state workers’ compensation act because it was not clear whether driver had intentionally caused harm to decedent. Defendant estate filed a second motion for summary judgment alleging plaintiff had named wrong defendant (naming the estate rather than widow in her capacity as administrator of estate) and further statute of limitations had expired. While trial court found the error in naming the wrong defendant was not a fatal one, the statute of limitations had expired.
The Wyoming Supreme Court affirmed in part (with regard to workers’ compensation’s exclusive remedy barring claims against the company/employer) and reversed in part (finding statute of limitations was not barred). Therefore, the claim against the estate of owner/driver will be allowed to move forward.
If you are injured in an accident in Massachusetts, call the Law Offices of Jeffrey S. Glassman for a free and confidential appointment — 1-888-367-2900.
Knight v. Estate of McCoy, Jan. 14, 2015, Wyoming Supreme Court
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