Workplace Injuries: Who Can Sue and When

Workplace Injuries: Who Can Sue and WhenSince many of us spend more time at our workplace than at home or engaging in leisure activities, it should come as no surprise that injuries in the workplace are common. Injuries can result if an employee is simply engaged in a naturally dangerous activity, such as construction work, but can even occur in offices or other environments typically considered to be much safer.

Because of this, many workers find themselves with potential legal claims against employers or others while they are at work. The law of employer-employee liability can be very complex, both legally and factually. In many cases, recovery may be impossible, while in others, there may be very valid causes of action.

Suits Against Employers

As a general rule, employers are given immunity from personal injury suits brought by employees. This is because of Florida’s workers compensation laws. The Florida legislature has made a trade-off, requiring most employers to provide employees workers compensation. Workers compensation is a system whereby an employee can receive payment for injuries or lost wages, without having to prove negligence. In other words, unlike a personal injury case, it does not matter who is responsible—an employee allowed to receive workers compensation only needs to prove injury, not liability.

In exchange for this “no fault” system, the legislature has made it very difficult for an employee to sue an employer for typical personal injury damages. There are exceptions where an employer acts in a wanton manner, or acts grossly negligent akin to intentional behavior, but that is a large burden, and a tough standard for an injured worker to prove.

Third Parties

Of course, in many cases, someone may be injured on the job as a result of the negligence of someone who is not their direct employer. In that case, the employee can sue the negligent party under standard personal injury laws, and obtain the full damages that a personal injury claim provides.

For example, someone who works in an office and is injured by a defective elevator may still be able to sue the building owner, or elevator maintenance company, third parties with nothing to do with the employer.

New Case Reinforces Independent Contractor Negligence Standard

Sometimes, the relationship between the injured party and the employer comes into question. The relationships can be quite complex, and they matter because the nature of the relationship will dictate what duties someone owes a contractor.

In a recent case, Fuentes v Sandel Inc., a building owner hired a company to perform painting work on a building. The company hired a subcontractor (an independent contractor) to do the work. The building owner and painting company met with the subcontractor, to warn them not to step on skylights, as they would not hold, and anybody putting weight on them would fall through.

One of the subcontractors did fall through the skylight during the job, to his death. The subcontractor’s estate sued the building owners, but the building owners alleged that the subcontractor was just an independent contractor, and as such, all the owners had to do was warn of a dangerous condition, which they allege they did.

The trial court dismissed the case, agreeing that the relationship was only that of independent contractors, and stating that the work was inherently dangerous, and the building owner had done all that it was obligated to do.

The appellate court reiterated that the only duty owed to independent contractors was to warn of a dangerous condition. However, there were two exceptions to this rule:

  • Where the property owner actively participates in the activity with the contractor, and
  • If the owner fails to warn of concealed or hidden dangers that the owner knows about.

The first exception requires that someone exerted control over the manner of the independent contractor’s work—more than just warning of dangers, or giving general direction. Additionally the contractor must prove that any control was exercised negligently.

The appellate court held that simply supplying materials to the contractor, and warning them of the danger of the skylight, was not enough to show the control needed to make the building owner liable for the death. Such instruction did not amount to controlling how the contractor did its job, or managing the contractor’s operations.

The court also held the contractors were aware of the danger of falling through the skylight. In addition to having been warned about it, the contractors were familiar with the property, and the skylight was easily discernable from the roof area. 

Relationships Can Be Confusing

As you can see, the varying steps of professional relationship—from employer to employee, to employer to independent contractor, to employee to third party stranger—can yield significantly different results in court.

The relationship between the parties in the case was clear. Nobody disputed the subcontractor was an independent contractor; the issue was whether a heightened duty was owed by the party that hired the contractor.

In many cases, the nature of the relationship is at issue, and may not be so clear. Many employers, whether for tax or other purposes, will try to frame an employee as a “contractor,” when that person is actually an employee.

Likewise, many employees may accept such a label, in order to gain tax advantages or professional independence (just as many may want to be considered a full employee, for the benefits and workers compensation protections). But altering the relationship between you and whoever is hiring you can make a big difference if you are injured on the job. You should think very carefully before opting one option over the other.

Do not try to figure out negligent parties or analyze workplace injuries yourself. Call the injury attorneys of Brill & Rinaldi today for a free consultation to discuss who may be responsible for accidents that happen on the job.