Case of the Month: Workers’ Compensation Remains Exclusive Remedy in Pennsylvania with Few Exceptions
Claimant, Lindsay Franczyk, was employed with Home Depot when she was bitten by a customer’s dog while in the course and scope of her employment. She sought and secured workers’ compensation benefits from Home Depot (“employer”) following the incident after reporting it promptly to her supervisors. After the incident report, Claimant’s supervisors investigated but were unable to identify the dog who bit her or the owners of the animal. All potential witnesses, as well as two customers who had brought dogs into the store on the day in question, were permitted to leave the store without securing any identifying information.
Claimant brought suit against Defendant/Employer on the allegation that Defendant/Employer’s negligence in investigating the incident led to her inability to file suit against the dog’s owner seeking further recovery beyond the benefits allowed by the Worker’s Compensation Act.
Defendant/Employer moved for summary judgment before the trial court, arguing that the exclusivity provisions of the Workers’ Compensation Act would prevent Claimant from making any further recovery against her employer other than those benefits allowed for in the Act. The trial court denied the motion for summary judgment, relying on a Florida Decision to hold that there was a genuine question as to whether the Employer had a duty to investigate the claim to in turn allow the injured worker the opportunity to pursue a third party case.
On appeal to the Pennsylvania Superior Court, the holding of the trial court was affirmed. They noted in their Decision that the Act’s exclusivity provisions were not absolute under all circumstances. The Superior Court further “embraced” the Claimant’s position that she was seeking to recover economic damages caused by the Defendant/Employer’s failure to investigate rather than for the physical injuries themselves which were covered by the Workers’ Compensation Act.
Defendant/Employer again appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, arguing that the exclusivity provisions of the Workers’ Compensation Act prevented Claimant from bringing suit against her employer for injuries sustained at work.
In their opinion, the Supreme Court again examined the exclusivity provisions of the WCA, beginning with the General Assembly’s intent when enacting the WCA. Holding that the plain language of the Act bars suit against an employer for any recovery beyond the remedies provided by the WCA, the Court observed that the allegedly “impeded” suit against the dog’s owner would have sought damages for the physical injuries which had already been covered under the WCA. Relying on their holding in Kuney v. PMA Insurance Co., 578 A.2d 1285 (Pa. 1990), the Court held that when allegations of a claim have as their ultimate basis in an injury otherwise covered by the WCA, the claim must be considered within the framework of the statute. The Court noted even further that the exclusivity provisions of the WCA have not been “thwarted” by allegations of non-, mis-, and malfeasance by an Employer or WC Insurer.
The Court then turned to Claimant’s arguments, dismissing each. First, the Court held that in this situation, the Employer did not have a duty to protect and preserve the interests of their employees, namely an employee’s interest in pursuing a third-party claim arising from a work injury. Imposing such a duty on the Employer could lead to a common law claim which is precisely what the WCA sought to restrict.
Second, the Court acknowledged that where an employer’s deception or fraudulent misrepresentation led to the worsening of a work-related physical injury that otherwise could have been improved or avoided, a claim by an employee against an Employer could proceed. However, in this case, the Court held that the Claimant could not wholly divorce her claim for negligence from her physical injury. If she could have done so, her claim against her Employer may not have failed.
Thus, the Supreme Court reversed the Superior Court and remanded to the trial court with direction that an order granting Summary Judgment be entered.
Disclaimer: This post does not offer specific legal advice, nor does it create an attorney-client relationship. You should not reach any legal conclusions based on the information contained in this post without first seeking the advice of counsel.