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Reed v. Malone’s Mechanical – Third-Party Claims Must Be Comprehensive From Start

A recent third-party liability claim stemming from a work injury failed because plaintiff did not name all potential defendants soon enough in the process.
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While this oversight seems obvious in hindsight, the reality is identifying all responsible parties, particularly on a multi-employer work site, can be challenging. Our Atlanta workers’ compensation lawyers are experienced in conducting thorough investigations at the outset of the case, and continuing our exploration of the case in consideration of deadlines as facts become available.

Workers’ compensation serves as an exclusive remedy to workers who are hurt on the job. But that exclusive remedy provision is applicable only to employers. Uutside of wanton disregard for worker safety, workers’ compensation is the only means of collecting damages. The exception would be if a third-party is responsible, which was the assertion in the recent case of Reed v. Malone’s Mechanical, Inc., et al. before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.

The worker in question was employed by an industrial food machine company, and was contracted to repair cooking equipment at a chicken plant. At the same time, the chicken plant was undergoing major renovations. The company hired a project manager to oversee all the different contractors. The project manager did not tell the repairman there would be overhead work conducted in the same area at the same time.

Because of the position of the oven in the room where the plumbers were working, they were not able to position the scissor lift directly underneath the piping. Instead, they were working at an angle. As one plumber was adjusting a piece of metal supporting the pipe, it slipped and fell onto the head of the repairman, who was standing underneath. The metal weighed 10 to 12 pounds, and he suffered injuries as a result.

Originally, the repairman sued the plumbing contractor, the plumbing contractor’s employee and the chicken plant operator in federal court. However, he did not sue the project manager.

The chicken plant operator was granted summary judgment, and the rest of the lawsuit was dismissed without prejudice, meaning he had a right to re-file. When he refiled, he named the plumbing contractor and its employee for negligence in failing to properly secure the pipe saddle and for failing to warn him of overhead work being conducted.

Because the at-fault worker was on the job at the time, his negligence was imputed on the employer, the plumbing contractor/defendant. The plumbing contractor then filed a third-party complaint against the project manager, asserting he breached a duty by scheduling overhead work when other workers would be below, and by failing to ensure the safety of all workers.

The project manager filed a motion to dismiss, asserting any claim was barred by the statute of limitations. The court held that while the injured worker was barred at that point from naming the project manager as a defendant, the plumbing contractor could seek to indemnify itself in the pending action if the project manager shared liability. That meant if a jury found the project manager to be partially at fault, the project manager wouldn’t have to pay anything to the injured man, but damages owed by the plumbing contractor, if also found liable, would be reduced by the project manager’s share of responsibility.

Thus, if a jury found the injured man suffered $100,000 damages, with the project manager 30 percent liable and plumbing contractor 70 percent liable, the latter would only have to pay $70,000 in damages, while the project manager (because the claim was time-barred) would pay nothing.

However, after hearing all the evidence, the jury found the plumbing contractor had no duty of care to the repairman. With this question answered, the jury was not asked to consider the potential fault of the project manager.

Therefore, the claimant received nothing (aside from workers’ compensation). Had he named the project manager as a defendant from the beginning, he might have retained a shot at damage recovery.

For information on Atlanta work injury compensation, contact J. Franklin Burns, P.C., at 1-404-303-7770.

Additional Resources:
Reed v. Malone’s Mechanical, Inc., et al., Aug. 29, 2014, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit
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Harris v. Millennium Hotel – Same-Sex Partnership and Workers’ Compensation Benefits, Aug. 25, 2014, Atlanta Workers’ Compensation Lawyer Blog