Under Pennsylvania’s workers’ compensation law, employees are assured that when they suffer an on-the-job injury, their medical bills will be paid. In addition, they will receive partial wages if they are too disabled to work for an extended period.
Part of the grand bargain of workers’ compensation is that employees are barred from suing their coworkers or employers for negligence. However, under some circumstances they may be able to press a legal claim against another business or person whose actions hurt them while at their jobs. Such third-party lawsuits are becoming more common as more workplaces use contractors and temporary workers on a regular basis.
A third-party lawsuit can also seek non-economic damages that are greater than the recovery possible under workers’ compensation benefits in Pennsylvania. This explains the recent surge in third-party claims we have seen, such as:
- A bus driver suing after being assaulted by a passenger.
- A nurse suing after being pricked by a contaminated needle not properly disposed of by a temp worker at the hospital.
- A hotel chambermaid filing for damages from her slip-and-fall accident after a transient guest flooded his room with soapy water.
But some workers are finding to their surprise that they cannot file a third-party injury lawsuit because they have previously given up their rights to seek a recovery in court. A recent decision by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court says that yes, this is completely fair for the worker.
A look at the Bowman decision
The case we’re talking about is Bowman v. Sunoco, Inc., decided by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania in April 2013.
Sabrina Bowman was employed by Allied Barton Security Services, a company that provides private security guards for businesses that don’t maintain their own security forces. She was assigned to provide security at a Sunoco refinery. While on the job one day, she slipped and fell on a patch of snow or ice. She collected standard Pennsylvania’s workers’ compensation benefits from her employer, but she also decided to file a third-party personal injury lawsuit against Sunoco for the company’s failure to remove the slippery material that caused her to fall.
But Ms. Bowman had signed a waiver when she took the job at Allied Barton Security in 2004. As part of her employment agreement, she had promised never to sue an Allied Barton client for workplace injuries. Sunoco argued that the waiver made it immune to Ms. Bowman’s lawsuit. The trial judge agreed, and ordered the case dropped.
The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania also agreed, when the case finally reached the justices after multiple levels of appeals. Ms. Bowman’s legal team argued that the waiver should be void because it fostered poor public policy. The majority of the Supreme Court found instead that Bowman waived her rights voluntarily, noting that “Appellant was not forced to sign the release, and the release did not in any way prevent her from receiving compensation for her work-related injuries as provided by the [Workers’ Compensation] Act.”
The future of workplace lawsuits after the Bowman decision
Some legal experts already anticipate that more employers will make similar waivers part of the hiring process in Pennsylvania. Waivers could be written to forbid manufacturers of the tools and machinery used in the workplace, or to forbid suing patrons of a restaurant, spa, hotel, or other service venue. If you’re looking for work, you have to sign the waiver, or you don’t get the job: it’s that simple.
Of course, no waiver can force you to sign away your rights to workers’ compensation benefits in Pennsylvania. Those benefits are absolutely guaranteed by state law, and no private agreement can modify that assurance. But your rights to hold third parties accountable for injuries at your workplace are now under siege. You need to be prepared to defend those rights.
If you have suffered an injury on the job in Harrisburg, Carlisle, York, or any nearby community, you will be curious to know whether you are receiving 100 percent of your workers’ compensation benefits, or whether you can demand a recovery from a third party. The way to find out is by calling the Harrisburg workers’ compensation attorneys from Schmidt Kramer. Call us right now at 717-888-8888 or toll-free at 888-476-0807 and request a FREE copy of Who Pays The Bills When You Are Injured At Work?, our introductory book for clients. We will send it to you at our own expense. Read it. Then, when you’re ready to talk about the details of your own situation, let us schedule a free, confidential case review. Give us the chance to show you how Schmidt Kramer can make a difference for you.