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workplace injury case in court

In most cases you cannot file an action in court (sue) your employer for a workplace injury; your exclusive remedy is to file a workers’ compensation claim. Workers’ compensation is a no-fault insurance system that allows you to recover benefits including medical treatment, rehabilitation, lost wages, death benefits (for your family if you suffer a fatal accident), and more. But, what if you were working for a subcontractor on a job where your employer was hired by a general contractor? Could you sue the general contractor if it was partly responsible for your injuries?

A Workers’ Compensation Attorney Would Know

If you suffer an injury at work, a skilled workers’ compensation law firm such as Kneisler & Schondel would recognize the circumstances that might lead to you being able to sue a general contractor that hired your employer, a subcontractor. Such a lawsuit would enable you to recover for injuries causes by a company that did not directly employ you. Any award in the civil lawsuit would be in addition to what you recovered under workers’ compensation insurance, though the general contractor would get a setoff (a reduction) of the amount paid by workers’ compensation insurance.

To give you a sense of the circumstances in which lawsuits against general contractors have been allowed, and not allowed, we briefly discuss two California Supreme Court cases. As you will see, the law can be complicated! Knowing when a civil action can be filed, in addition to a workers’ compensation claim, is not a simple matter. Having a skilled workers’ compensation lawyer, such as those at Kneisler & Schondel, on your side will enable you to get the full benefits to which you are entitled.

Example of Lawsuit in Addition to Workers’ Compensation Claim NOT Allowed

In Hooker v. Department of Transportation (2002) 27 Cal.4th 198 the California Supreme Court held that if a general contractor retained control over safety at a worksite, and the exercise of retained control affirmatively contributed to an employee’s (an employee of a subcontractor) injuries, that the employee of the subcontractor could sue the general contractor in tort (could file a civil lawsuit). The key words here are “affirmatively contributed”.

Paul Hooker was a crane operator. His employer was hired by the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) to build a highway overpass. It was common practice of the crane operators on the project to periodically retract the outriggers of the cranes, which provide stability especially when the boom of the crane is extended to its side, to allow traffic to pass, as the outriggers blocked traffic on the road on which the crane sat. The Caltrans construction manual provided that its safety coordinator was to supervise worksite safety, was to be able to recognize and anticipate unsafe conditions, and had the authority to shut down operations if they were unsafe.

Shortly before the accident, Hooker retracted the outriggers to allow traffic to pass. After it had passed, he swung the boom out without first re-extending the outriggers. The crane tipped over; Hooker was thrown from it and died. In this case the Supreme Court held that Caltrans could NOT be sued by Hooker’s family (for wrongful death) as Caltrans had not “affirmatively contributed” to Hooker’s death. Rather, Caltrans had merely permitted traffic to use the road on which the crane was sitting, but had not directed the crane operator in his use of the outriggers.

Example of Lawsuit in Addition to Workers’ Compensation Claim ALLOWED

In McKown v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. (2002) 27 Cal.4th 219 Wal-Mart hired an independent contractor to install sound systems in its stores; McKown was an employee of the independent contractor. Wal-Mart asked the contractor to use its (Wal-Mart’s) forklifts whenever possible during the work. Wal-Mart provided McKown and his co-worker with a forklift that had a work platform and a four-foot extension to raise the platform. Two chains were also supposed to be provided, one to chain the extension to the forklift and one to chain the platform to either the extension or the forklift. In this case, however, only one chain was provided; it chained the extension to the forklift. McKown and his co-worker decided to use the forklift anyway. While the co-worker was driving the forklift and McKown was on the work platform, the platform hit a ceiling pipe. Due to the lack of the second chain, the platform fell 15 feet with McKown on it; McKown was injured.

In this case the Supreme Court held that Wal-Mart could be held partly responsible for McKown’s injuries as the subcontractor felt obligated to agree to Wal-Mart’s request to use its forklifts. Wal-Mart “affirmative contributed” to the use of a faulty forklift by pressuring the subcontractor to utilize it.

Workers’ Compensation Law is Complex

If you have difficulty understanding why the Supreme Court ruled as it did in these two cases, no need to worry. You don’t need to be an expert in interpreting the law. Expert attorneys, such as those at Kneisler & Schondel, review new case law related to workers’ compensation on a daily basis and know what you, an injured worker, are entitled to. If you have been injured at work, contact Kneisler & Schondel right away for a free initial consultation.