Immunity From Personal Injury Claims for Contractors – Black v. Dixie

When injuries occur while an individual is taking on a task related to work, complicated legal issues can arise. Generally, injuries that occur on the job are addressed through a state’s workers’ compensation system. Workers’ compensation laws preclude employees from filing suit for personal injuries against an employer, but instead they provide that the employee is compensated for time off work and medical bills. But what happens when an employee is injured as a result of a third party’s actions, rather than the actions of the employer?  Can negligence or other tort claims be brought against that individual or entity? A recent case in the Sixth Circuit looks at the question of whether individuals can bring suit for personal injuries against contractors with which their employer was working.

In Black v. Dixie, Mr. Black was a driver for Western Trucks, which delivered paper goods for Dixie Consumer Products.  On the day in question, Mr. Black delivered several thousand pounds of pulpboard to be processed at a Dixie factory. When he arrived, he assisted the factory employees with unloading and moving the pulpboard. During the process, his foot was run over by a forklift, and he required an amputation below the knee.  Although Mr. Black received workers’ compensation benefits from Western, he also filed a negligence claim against Dixie for his injuries and medical expenses. Black argued that while workers’ compensation laws did not allow him to sue Western, they did not apply to Dixie because it was not his employer. Dixie argued, in response, that it was immune from liability under the workers’ compensation laws because it was contracting with Western. The trial court agreed, and Black appealed.

On appeal, the Sixth Circuit noted that, under most state’s workers’ compensation laws, contractors are also immune from personal injury lawsuits when a worker is injured while performing work that is a regular or recurrent part of the trade or occupation of the owner. This is known as “up-the-ladder” immunity, and it is offered to contractors in exchange for agreeing to provide backup workers’ compensation benefits when a primary employer does not provide them. The question of whether such immunity prevented Black from suing Dixie for his injuries depended on (1) whether Western was hired to perform work for Dixie; (2) whether the work was a regular and customary part of Dixie’s business; and (3) whether it was work that Dixie or similar businesses would normally perform.

Here, the Sixth Circuit noted that discovery had showed that Western was hired to perform work for Dixie and that the delivery work it, and Mr. Black, performed was a normal part of Dixie’s business, which required it to deliver paper products to factories across the country. Unloading such materials upon delivery was also found to be a regular part of Dixie’s business and a role that Dixie employees would regularly perform.  Accordingly, it determined that Dixie was a contractor with Western and was immune from liability for personal injuries under workers’ compensation laws.  The Sixth Circuit further noted that while its holding was disadvantageous for personal injury plaintiffs seeking redress for their injuries, it would ensure that employees injured while performing work for contractors were entitled to workers’ compensation from such contractors, in exchange for the immunity that the Sixth Circuit recognized in its decision.

If you are an individual considering a lawsuit against third parties for an injury you experienced related to your work, it is important to carefully consider whether your lawsuit may be precluded by existing workers’ compensation laws. Tennessee personal injury attorney Eric Beasley is available to assist you in evaluating your legal options and drafting a strong claim for relief. For more information on seeking redress and compensation for your injuries, contact the Law Office of Eric Beasley today at 615-859-2223.

Related Blog Posts:

Preemption of Personal Injury Claims By ERISA, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, May 26, 2016.

Immunity from Personal Injury for Tennessee Ski Resorts, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, April 27, 2016.

The Complexities of Bringing Personal Injury Claims Against Large Corporations in Tennessee, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, March 10, 2016