Burley v. U.S. Foods – The Commission Isn’t Always Right

An out-of-state trucker may now pursue workers’ compensation benefits in North Carolina for a back injury he sustained out-of-state, based on the fact that the division headquarters was local. This was despite the state’s Industrial Commission’s initial refusal to accept jurisdiction over the matter.
The North Carolina Court of Appeals later accepted review of Burley v. U.S. Foods, et al. at the plaintiff’s request, and ultimately reversed the commission’s finding in favor of the plaintiff.

Charlotte workers’ compensation lawyers know this case reveals that workers should not necessarily be discouraged by the outcome of the initial hearing. This is not the first time the commission’s decision has been successfully challenged, and it certainly won’t be the last.

According to the court records on file, the plaintiff is a resident of Georgia who travels across the country for a national food service supply company that delivers to hundreds of thousands of customers, such as restaurants, schools, hotels, sports venues and other businesses.

The plaintiff was first hired for the firm in 2000 in South Carolina, which was where he had received his commercial trucking license. His routes were typically back and forth between Georgia and South Carolina, with the rig stored nearly every day at a yard in Augusta. Later, he transferred to the branch’s Charlotte division, which was closer to his home in Augusta.

Then in 2009, he was he injured his back in the fall of 2009 while carrying a case of liquid milk to a fast-food drive-in restaurant in Georgia. A week later, the company fired him.

The plaintiff filed a workers’ compensation claim (though in a situation such as this, we might also suggest the exploration of an employment retaliation lawsuit, though that is an issue for another article).

The North Carolina Industrial Commission denied the plaintiff’s claim, but only for the fact that it claimed the state did not have jurisdiction over the matter, not because the plaintiff’s claim was invalid.

The plaintiff then appealed to the North Carolina Court of Appeals. He argued that because the company had transferred oversight of his job duties from the Columbia division to the Charlotte division, and his employment contract was modified to reflect this language, that North Carolina had jurisdiction over his claim.

The appeals court chose to review the case not on the merits of the plaintiff’s claim, but rather solely on the issue of whether the state had jurisdiction.

The appellate court sided with the plaintiff, holding that common law rules of contract apply to claims filed under the state’s Workers’ Compensation Act.

The court indicated that the modification to the terms of the old contract meant that essentially a “new” employment contract was “made” in North Carolina. The court pointed to several elements of the “new” contract, which included:

  • Alteration from a weight-based pay system to a component-based pay system;
  • This change effectively led to an increase in pay;
  • Defendant retained the plaintiff as an employee.

On the reasoning that the employee was working on a North Carolina employment contract with a company whose division headquarters is located here, the court reversed the industrial commission’s earlier finding and remanded the case for further review.

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

Additional Resources:
Burley v. U.S. Foods, et al., April 1, 2014, North Carolina Court of Appeals

More Blog Entries
Willard v. VP Builders – NC Appeals Court Upholds Worker Death Benefit Ruling, June 6, 2014, Charlotte Workers’ Compensation Lawyer Blog

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