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Angiulo: Employee Injuries and Employer Liability

Monday, September 07, 2015

 

There are some jobs out there that are just hard work.  They require lifting heavy loads and using machines with the capacity to maim and disfigure.  Sometimes, the people doing these jobs don't make it home unscathed. Since 1911 the Massachusetts Workers' Compensation laws have been in place to protect people from the effects of lost income after an injury on the job.  Like anything else, these protections came with a trade-off: employers cannot be sued for negligence by injured employees.

In the recent case of Molina v. State Garden, Inc. the Massachusetts Appeals Court looked at these laws in the context of staffing companies. Consider that a staffing company finds people who want to work and, in this case, a produce company needs labor for processing their product.  The produce company contracts with the staffing company and people show up to provide services and get paid.  

The Molina case focuses on an easily occuring scenario.  When a member of this temporary labor force is injured on the job, how is that laborer going to be compensated for the injury?  The Appeals Court ruled that Workers' Compensation was the exclusive remedy and took the time to explain why.

Even though the produce company in this case was paying the wages and setting the hours, the staffing company was also responsible for certain aspects of the administrative concerns regarding the plaintiff and therefore was also an employer.  Relevant to this case was the staffing agencies maintenance of a workers' compensation insurance policy that encompassed the produce company's relationship with the plaintiff.  

In addition, when the plaintiff contracted with the staffing agency he had signed an agreement.  The terms of that agreement included a promise that, if injured, the plaintiff would not sue any client of the staffing agency.  That promise was based on the plaintiff acknowledging the Massachusetts Workers' Compensation statutes would be his only source of relief in a worst case scenario.

When the plaintiff was, unfortunately, injured he filed suit against the produce company claiming that there was a seperate action for negligence.  The trial court allowed the produce company's pre-trial motion to dismiss, known as a summary judgment motion, based on the existence of an agreement between the staffing and produce companies to pay worker's compensation benefits.  

On appeal, the justices appreciated the fact that there was no previous case directly on point.  They agreed with the trial court's logic, however, because of the historical purpose of the relevant statutes, the agreement between the employers, and the availability of an insurance policy to compensate the injured worker.  That the employee had signed a promise to receive such benefits and not sue the produce company did not help his case either.

As the justices of the Appeals Court pointed out, the Workers' Compensation laws were instituted to replace the pre-existing system of individual lawsuits between employers and employees.  While there is still a hearing process involving an administrative agency of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts before benefits may be collected, there is an orderly process to apply and receive the appropriate compensation for injuries.  While this case provides clear expectations for employers, they should remember that the properly structured relationship between the staffing and produce companies were one key to the court's analysis.   

Leonardo Angiulo is an Attorney with the firm of Glickman, Sugarman, Kneeland & Gribouski in Worcester handling legal matters across the Commonwealth. He can be reached by email at [email protected] 

 

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