Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Pennsylvania Supreme Court Addresses Scope of Statutory Employer Immunity


In its recent decision in the case of Patton v. Worthington Associates, Inc., 2014 WL 1236499 (Pa. March 26, 2014) (Opinion by Saylor, J.) (concurring Opinion followed by Baer, J.), the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that neither a subcontractor nor a subcontractor’s sole shareholder was an “independent contractor” relative to the statutory employer provisions of the Workers’ Compensation Act. 
 
By way of background, a subcontractor in this matter brought a negligence action against the general contractor to recover for injuries alleged sustained at a work site from a 14 foot fall.  
 
After a trial in the Bucks County Court of Common Pleas, the trial court entered judgment on the verdict in favor of the Plaintiffs and denied the general contractor’s Motion for Judgment Notwithstanding the Verdict (JNOV).   The general contractor appealed the Supreme Court ruled as noted above.  
 
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court noted that, pursuant to the Workers’ Compensation Act, general contractors are deemed to bear secondary liability for the payment of workers’ compensation benefits to injured workers employed by their subcontractors and, in this sense, general contractors are considered to be “Statutory Employers” relative to workers’ compensation liability, even though they are not common-law employers of the subcontractor’s employees.
 
Accordingly, the court went on to note that such Statutory Employers, including general contractors, could enjoy a measure of immunity from liability under the Workers’ Compensation Act for tort claims pertaining to work-related injuries.  
 
The Supreme Court went on to note that the governing law should have been applied by the trial court at the summary judgment stage before this case ever reached a trial in which the jury ruled in favor of the Plaintiff.  
 
In light of this decision in the case of Patton v. Worthington Associates, many general contractor and subcontractor Defendants in construction cases where a construction worker has been injured on the job have been amending their Answer and New Matter, or in federal court, their Answer and Affirmative Defenses, to include the statutory employer defense in order to preserve that defense to be raised at the Motion for Summary Judgment stage of the case.  
 
Anyone wishing to review a copy of Justice Saylor's majority opinion in the case of Patton v. Worthington Associates, Inc., may click this LINK.  Justice Baer's concurring opinion may be viewed HERE.  

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