Black v. Dixie Consumer Products – Exclusive Remedy of Workers’ Compensation

Workers who are injured on-the-job have the benefit of a no-fault system of compensation, wherein they don’t have to prove the company made a mistake in order to receive help with medical bills and lost wages. The trade-off of this is that workers cannot then turn around and sue their employer for a personal injury in civil court. forklift1

This schema is fairly straightforward, but the waters can be muddied when other companies or individuals are involved. There might be reasonable grounds for third-party litigation, but it really depends on the circumstances.

In the recent case of Black v. Dixie Consumer Products, the question was whether a worker was allowed to pursue personal injury compensation from a third-party company, not his employer. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit weighed in.

According to court records, defendant is a company that makes plates and cups from raw paper material. The firm has 48 different truck and freight service providers in charge of carrying raw paper to the factory in Bowling Green, KY. One of those carriers was a company called Western Express, which employed the plaintiff. These carriers agreed to transport and deliver shipments of contract freight from facilities or other designated locations to the various points of destination.

On the day of the incident in question, plaintiff drove his truck, loaded with more than 41,000 pounds of material, to the factory. Large rubber mats separated heavy paper rolls that were secured from the journey. After parking the truck, plaintiff got permission from the Dixie forklift operator to go into the loading dock area through a locked cage (designed to keep pedestrians out). It was common practice for the truck driver to unload each rubber mat stacked between the paper products so that the forklift operator didn’t have to get out each time to do it. Plaintiff and the forklift operator got into a rhythm working together, unloading the material. At some point, however, defendant worker rolled over plaintiff’s foot. This resulted in a severe leg injury that required a below-the-knee amputation.

Plaintiff filed for – and received – workers’ compensation as a result of his injury.

He then filed a personal injury lawsuit against Dixie and its parent company for $1.85 million in damages. Defendants responded citing the exclusive remedy provision. Trial court granted defendant’s summary judgment. The federal appeals court reversed because the record wasn’t sufficiently developed for summary judgment. Specifically, there wasn’t enough evidence to prove the work plaintiff was performing at the time of his injury was a recurrent part of defendant’s work. This is a precondition to contractor immunity under the state law in Kentucky. Defendant had to show this type of transportation was customary and usual and that it’s work that defendant or similar companies would be expected to perform with employees.

On remand, additional evidence was provided, but the district court held the record didn’t show defendants were entitled to contractor immunity. They appealed from this judgment, and the Sixth Circuit reversed. The Kentucky Supreme Court has held there is an “up-the-ladder immunity” for contractors when the work being performed is a regular part of the trade. Here, that was found to be the case, so the lawsuit is barred by the exclusive remedy provision of worker’s compensation law.

Workers’ compensation statutes do vary from state-to-state and among jurisdictions, so it’s important to discuss your case with an experienced work accident attorney in your state.

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

Additional Resources:

Black v. Dixie Consumer Products, Aug. 29, 2016, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit

More Blog Entries:

Owen v. Hogsed Landscaping – When an Employer Lacks Workers’ Compensation Insurance, Aug. 26, 2016, Charlotte Work Accident Attorney

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