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Immunity, Coworkers, Clarity | News For The Workers Comp Industry

Immunity, Coworkers, Clarity

  • 05/11/22
  • Judge David Langham

the Kansas City Star reported a workplace fatality in a community close to Detroit, Michigan. Certainly, such an event is newsworthy in a general sense, but is perhaps of additional interest to those in the workers’ compensation community. We strive for workplace safety, and at times struggle. Despite the ongoing threat of workplace death, safety has improved markedly in that regard. see Happy Memorial Day (April 2022). In this particular instance, a lawsuit is garnering more general national attention because the owner of the car is being sued instead of the car dealership.

This story illustrates aspects of the concept of workers’ compensation immunity, the potential for co-workers to be impacted, and the clarity challenges that sometimes confront the efforts to understand these complex laws. The story begins with a “42-year old” mechanic at a “Michigan car dealership.” He was changing the oil and rotating the tires on a vehicle with a manual transmission (one which requires the operator to physically engage a clutch in order to change gears).

These are becoming quite rare, and CarMax says they represent less than 3% of vehicles sold in this country. Despite such a small percentage of the total, Motor Trend says there are a surprising number of models for which the manual remains an option. As a result, perhaps the population of those experienced with such vehicles is likewise diminishing.

There is some lack of clarity in the story, both factually and legally. The “court records say the vehicle ‘lurched forward’ and “crushed mechanic Jeffrey Hawkins against a cabinet.” Careful attention to the story reveals that Mr. Hawkins was not operating the vehicle at the time; He was in front of the vehicle with his turned back when another technician attempted to start the vehicle. . . Daniel Thompson.” And, the estate of Mr. Hawkins is seeking damages from the owner of the vehicle, who had entrusted it to the dealership for service.

As it turns out, the “19-year-old technician” did not know how to drive a manual-transmission vehicle. He reportedly “did not have a driver’s license,” had “never taken a driver education class,” and was not “taught how to use stick shift vehicles.” Thus, perhaps it is more apt to say he did not know how to drive at all? The legal implications of the accident are significant. The dealership is immune from a civil lawsuit because of workers’ compensation. The employee’s sole recovery from the dealership is to be from that social safety net.

What many tend to forget is that the same immunity also usually applies to co-workers whose negligence causes injury, in this case the technician that attempted to start the car. The lawyer’s job is to search for some manner to recover for the client (Mr. Hawkins’ estate). It is unlikely that the 19-year-old technician has the means to pay significant damages. Having no drivers’ license, it is as unlikely that he has automobile liability insurance, which perhaps would be responsible for his operation of a “borrowed” automobile.

The lawsuit in this instance therefore alleges that the “vehicle owner . . . is ‘vicariously liable for the negligent acts’ of (the) technician.” The attorney that filed the lawsuit contends that the liability of the auto owner is no different from “when you lend your car to somebody so they can pick up lunch.” He contends that if that borrower then acted in a negligent manner with your car, you would be liable. The vehicle’s owner has apparently agreed that he “is liable for damages under the owner’s liability statute,” Michigan statute section 257.401, and has tendered his insurance coverage of about $100,000, despite admitting “no active negligence.”

That statute states that

“The owner of a motor vehicle is liable for an injury caused by the negligent operation of the motor vehicle whether the negligence consists of a violation of a statute of this state or the ordinary care standard required by common law.”

Thus, there is a liability created by statute so that someone is responsible in the event of an accident. Florida has a similar law, called the “dangerous instrumentality doctrine.” This protects “members of the public who are injured by the negligent operation of a motor vehicle. It “impos(es) strict vicarious liability on those with an identifiable property ownership interest in the vehicle.” Christensen v. Bowen, 140 So. 3d 498 (Fla 2014).Essentially, if your name is on the vehicle title, you are responsible for the acts of whomever you lend the vehicle.

Despite the statutory liability described in Michigan, the attorney representing the vehicle owner reportedly intends to defend the allegations in court. He is quoted by Yahoo News describing this as a challenging situation for any vehicle owner who allows a valet or vehicle servicer or others to operate a vehicle. How the dispute is resolved of course depends on intricacies of Michigan law. In Florida, it is possible that the same immunity that protects the employer, section 440.11, might well protect those who lease or lend (the vehicle owner) to the employer, if “the leased or borrowed equipment was in the exclusive control of the employer .” See Clements v. Wildlife Conservation Soc., 750 So. 2d 715, 716 (Fla. 5th DCA 2000). Thus, perhaps the outcome of such a case may depend on the law of the state in which the tragedy occurs.

The lawyer for the Michigan plaintiff (Mr. Hawkins’ estate) is seeking $15 million, and claims there is no damage or injury to the car’s owner because the “dealership where the incident occurred has been ordered by the court to indemnify” the vehicle owner . As the lawyer explains it, “in reality, the (vehicle) owner is going to be held responsible, but the dealership’s insurance company is paying.” There is, therefore, no similar “exclusive control” workers’ compensation immunity extension to the vehicle owner who allows some business’ employee to operate it.

Thus, in a somewhat circular fashion, the immunity of Michigan workers’ compensation is perhaps being circumvented. See Section 418.131, Mich. Statutes. The technician is (or was) also reportedly a defendant in the lawsuit, according to Yahoo. There is a decided lack of clarity in the news stories regarding whether the coworker technician remains a defendant, or has been afforded the coworker immunity described in section 418.827, Mich. Statutes. If the coworker is liable for operating the vehicle as alleged “in a careless, reckless and wanton manner in total disregard of the rights and safety of others,” that may be merely a foundation for the plaintiff to seek damages from the vehicle owner. In other words, the technician’s presence de ella as a defendant may be essentially to set the stage for establishing the vehicle owner’s responsibility.

Interestingly, however, it will be whether the “dangerous instrumentality” law in Michigan is successfully employed by Mr. Hawkins’ estate to reach tort recovery from the employer despite the purported shield of workers’ compensation immunity that an employer might anticipate would prevent such lawsuits. The posture of the case in the trial courts is currently trending in the news. However, the case remains in litigation and any outcome in the trial court may be subject to review in an appellate court. The story, however, illustrates much.

State laws regarding workers’ compensation may differ from those of other states. Employers would be well served to consider the exceptional (manual transmissions) that can confront their employees. Co-workers may or may not be immune to tort liability, depending upon state law. Seemingly, and similarly, those who own dangerous instrumentalities could potentially face liability in the event of injury (beyond a car in this example, consider cranes, drilling rigs, and other tools of various trades). There can be a lot of time invested in litigation, and many legal intricacies to sort.

It is an interesting story that brings much about which to think. How the Michigan courts, or the parties there, sort out these various questions may be interesting to watch.

By Judge David Langham

Courtesy of Florida Workers’ Comp


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Disclaimer: publishes independently generated writings from a variety of workers’ compensation industry stakeholders. The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of

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