When work-related accidents occur, the first resource those workers and their families may look to is workers’ compensation benefits. These are benefits paid by employers regardless of fault, so long as the injury occurred in the course and scope of one’s employment.
Injured workers and/ or surviving family members may additionally seek compensation from third parties who may be responsible. Workers can’t sue their employers due to the exclusive remedy provisions of workers’ compensation laws, but they can hold accountable third parties. When successful, these damage awards may well exceed the amount obtained in workers’ compensation actions, though recipients should know that they may be required to repay a portion of their workers’ compensation benefits if they are later paid by that third party.
The question of whether a third party can be held liable will depend on a host of factors and will be specific to that situation. On construction sites, the question of liability of third parties on that site will generally depend on the level of control the third party exercised on the site and the duty of care – if any – defendant owed plaintiff.
Unlike in workers’ compensation actions, third-party lawsuits do require plaintiffs to prove defendants were at-fault/ negligent in causing the accident and injury.
The recent case of Kronberg v. Oasis Petroleum, recently before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, was one such third-party litigation case following a work accident. Decedent’s widow successfully collected workers’ compensation death benefits, but then pursued third-party litigation against the owner and primary consultant of the oil well where this fatal work accident happened.
According to court records, defendant Oasis is in the business of oil and gas exploration. It obtains rights to drill for fuels, but doesn’t actually conduct the drilling itself; rather, it contracts with other firms that manage the drilling operations at its various wells.
One of those companies, defendant RPM, was a consultant hired to ensure the drilling process is happening safely, efficiently and according to plan. RPM doesn’t operate the equipment, but rather supervise third-party vendors.
Defendant Oasis obtained rights to drill at a location in North Dakota. Decedent’s employer agreed to drill the well and provide the rig and labor. Decedent was electrocuted when he walked onto a metal grate over which there was water and a live, exposed electrical cord.
As far as who placed the grate outside the structure where decedent was working in, this was in dispute. However, it had been raining several days before the accident and it was suggested the grate was placed at the location before the rain started.
Decedent’s widow filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the owner of the well and the main consulting firm. However, district court granted summary judgment to defendants, finding they owed no duty of care to decedent under North Dakota law.
Plaintiff appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. She argued that a site supervisor in charge of safety was an employee of both the oil well owner and the consulting firm, and that those firms were therefore vicariously liable for his negligent actions. However, the companies argued this worker was an independent contractor, and they could not be held liable for the actions of independent contractors.
So the question for the North Dakota courts was whether this worker in question was an independent contractor or an employee. Weighing a number of factors – including the right to direct or control the means and manner of work performance – the evidence showed the company didn’t direct the work. The Eighth Circuit agreed, meaning this third party action was not permitted to further proceed.
If you have been injured at work, contact the Lee Law Offices at 800-887-1965.
Kronberg v. Oasis Petroleum, Aug. 5, 2016, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit
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OSHA Lab Safety Standards Strive to Protect Workers, Aug. 4, 2016, Charlotte Work Injury Lawyer Blog