Schaefer v. Universal Scaffolding – Third-Party Liability for Work Injury, Spoliation of Evidence

When you are injured at work in South Carolina, your first order of business – aside from seeking medical treatment – should be to consult with a workers’ compensation lawyer. Preferably, you want someone who not only understands workers’ compensation law in your state but also handles personal injury litigation. The reason is because while workers’ compensation claims are often filed first, it’s important that the investigation considers any subsequent third-party lawsuit that could be filed. Scaffolding

Although injured workers can’t typically sue their employers if they’re collecting workers’ compensation, even if the employer was negligent, they may be able to pursue compensation from responsible third parties. On construction sites, these could potentially include general contractors, property owners, other subcontractors, product or machine manufacturers, and others. The reason this is an important consideration is because third-party lawsuits tend to result in higher damages awards. Workers’ compensation claims will cover medical bills and a portion of lost wages, but you won’t get compensated for pain and suffering, emotional distress, loss of consortium, or punitive damages. You can claim all of those damages in a third-party lawsuit.

In the recent case of Schaefer v. Universal Scaffolding, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit was asked whether the plaintiff could proceed with a case against a third party for spoliation of evidence. He’d tried to proceed with a negligence lawsuit against the product provider/manufacturer, but when the piece of scaffolding that struck him went missing, he added claims of spoliation of evidence against both his employer and the energy plant where he was working at the time.

According to court records, the plaintiff worked for a company that was contracted by an energy company to erect scaffolding at the power plant. The plaintiff and his company received the components from the manufacturer, and the parts were paid for by the energy company.

The scaffolding used a system called a “cup-lock” to keep the bars in place. However, as they got started on the job, the workers had a tough time because some of the components weren’t the right length, and others were bent. Those components wouldn’t properly lock into place.

Eventually, this problem became common enough that the plaintiff’s boss began having his crews inspect the components of the scaffold as it came in and place the defective pieces aside.

At the time of the accident, the plaintiff and a co-worker were assembling the scaffolding, with the plaintiff standing below the other worker. Suddenly, one of the bars popped out of the cup and struck the plaintiff in the head, causing serious injuries. He was hospitalized with injuries to his head, neck, back, shoulders, and arms.

Exactly what caused that bar to fall is an issue that’s in dispute.

However, the plaintiff was able to secure workers’ compensation benefits because those do not require proof of fault.

Subsequently, he filed a product liability lawsuit against the maker of the scaffolding pieces. The actual piece that struck him was preserved for a time, but ultimately it was lost by the employees of the energy company.

The plaintiff then added claims of negligent spoliation of evidence against the power plant. Spoliation of evidence is intentionally, negligently, or recklessly destroying, losing, hiding, fabricating, or altering evidence that is relevant to a lawsuit. The remedy for spoliation can in some cases result in a damages award equal to what the plaintiff would have received had he or she prevailed in the case.

The district court ruled in favor of the defendants on a summary judgment motion, ruling the plaintiff would not be able to prove his spoliation claim because, absent any proof that the missing piece was indeed defective, the plaintiff couldn’t show that losing it caused him any damage. The other claims were dismissed as well.

The Seventh Circuit reversed with regard to the spoliation issue. The plaintiff was not required to establish that he would have won his case for spoliation but instead that there was a reasonable probability of success. The evidence presented, and specifically the fact that there was still a pile of other pieces that were defective, helped to establish this, which means the plaintiff can proceed to trial.

Contact the Carolina injury lawyers at the Lee Law Offices by calling 800-887-1965.

Additional Resources:

Schaefer v. Universal Scaffolding, Oct. 7, 2016, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit

More Blog Entries:

Worker Awarded $7M After Losing Leg in Workplace Injury, Oct. 6, 2016, Asheville Workers’ Compensation Lawyer Blog

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