Conley v. Alaska Communications – Third Party Lawsuits Following Work Injuries

North Carolina workers have a right to expect that worker’s compensation benefits will cover their expenses if they suffer a job-related injury or illness.
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What they may not realize is that, while workers’ compensation benefits serve as a sole remedy barring claims against an employer, acceptance of these benefits does not forbid a worker from filing third-party liability action against other entities that may bear responsibility for the injury. Our Asheville workers’ compensation lawyers can help with both types of claims.

The standard of proof in the two cases, however, are likely to be vastly different. In a workers’ compensation claim, one must prove that the injury in question occurred during the course of one’s employment. In a third-party lawsuit, one must prove not only that negligence occurred, but that negligence was a proximate cause of the worker’s injuries or ailments. Workers can collect both, but will need an experienced attorney to handle their claims.

In Conley v. Alaska Communications System Holdings, Inc., the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed that a finding of negligence alone was not enough for a successful third party liability claim. Proof that the negligence was a proximate cause of the worker’s injuries must also be provided.

In this case, the plaintiff was a truck driver for a company that delivered products to a communication system provider. Upon arriving with a delivery, he met with the forklift operator for the warehouse. Per the communication company’s protocol, the forklift operator was required to conduct a briefing with the driver regarding lift operations and the trucker’s role during the procedure. However, the forklift operator failed to hold this briefing.

The trucker gave the green light for the forklift operator to begin. There was a problem, though and the trucker motioned for the forklift operator to stop. In doing so, he removed a chain running through the reel’s opening in the rear of the trailer. He had been previously instructed by his firm to never step in front of the reel while removing the chain. But for some reason, this time, he did so anyway. As he did, the reel tilted forward in his direction. He attempted to steady it, but it was too heavy. He turned to dodge a hit, but the reel fell onto his back.

He sustained numerous injuries, including several broken lumbar vertebrae, three fractured ribs, a punctured lung and a chipped hip socket. He also began to exhibit neurological symptoms, which at first was diagnosed as Lou Gehrig’s disease. After initially being told he had 18 to 36 months to live, a second opinion indicated that in fact his neurological issues were related to the accident.

He collected workers’ compensation, as there was no doubt his injuries occurred during the course of his work. However, he also later filed a third-party complaint against both the communications company (for negligent equipment and training) and the forklift operator.

During the trial, the court refused to allow the plaintiff to issue a jury instruction indicating that the communications firm was negligent so long as the event that caused the harm wouldn’t ordinarily happen unless someone was negligent and the harmful event was in the defendant’s exclusive control. However, the court rejected this instruction, known as the res ipsa loquitur doctrine, because another element of this theory holds the plaintiff did not cause or contribute to the accident. Here, there was indication that the plaintiff may have held some degree of contributory negligence.

The jury ultimately decided that while the communications firm was negligent, it was not a substantial factor in causing the plaintiff’s injuries. Rather, his own contributory negligence was the greater cause, the jury found.

Although contributory negligence is not as great of an issue in workers’ compensation claims, it can make or break a third-party injury case.

If you have been injured at work, contact the Lee Law Offices at 800-887-1965.

Additional Resources:
Conley v. Alaska Communications System Holdings, Inc., May 9, 2014, Alaska Suprem Court

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Fourth Circuit: Miner’s Widow Should Receive Black Lung Benefits, May 7, 2014, Greensboro Workers’ Compensation Lawyer Blog

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