A Chink in the Armor of Workers' Compensation Immunity: Pennsylvania Superior Court Finds Narrow Exception to Workers' Compensation Immunity

Pennsylvania - Civil Liability

In a recent Pennsylvania Superior Court case, which can be found at 2009 Pa. Super 73; 971 A.2d 1280, the court ruled that the exclusivity provision of the Workers' Compensation Act ("Act"), 77 P.S. §481(a), does not preclude a claim by the plaintiff against his employer for spoliation of evidence.

The Act provides the following definitions with respect to "exclusivity" of remedy regarding the employer and "injury":

Exclusiveness of remedy; actions by and against third party; contract indemnifying third party

The liability of an employer under this Act shall be exclusive and in place of any and all other liability to such employees . . . in any action at law or otherwise on account of any injury or death . . .

77 P.S. §481(a).

"Injury" "personal injury" and "injury arising in the course of his employment" defined

The terms "injury" and "personal injury," as used in this Act, shall be construed to mean an injury to an employee, regardless of his previous physical condition, arising in the course of his employment and related thereto . . . The term "injury arising in the course of his employment," as used in this article, . . . shall include all other injuries sustained while the employee is actually engaged in the furtherance of the business or affairs of the employer . . .

77 P.S. §411(1).

In essence, the statute provides the employer with immunity from all suits by an employee based on injuries sustained while the employee is "actually engaged in the furtherance of the business or affairs of the employer . . . "

The plaintiff, Minto, was employed as a driver for the defendant/employer, a transportation company. On March 12, 2002, Minto was operating one of the employer's trucks when it went off the road and crashed, resulting in catastrophic injuries, including quadriplegia. It turned out that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) had issued recalls for the specific brakes, brake parts, and anti-lock braking system that were on the vehicle at the time of the accident.

Within hours of the accident, the employer had hired an accident investigator and inspected the truck. The defendant took possession of the vehicle and on March 28, 2002, repaired and replaced substantial parts of the tractor involved in this accident. On August 22, 2002, Minto hired counsel, who directed the employer to preserve the vehicle maintenance records and any parts related to the accident.

Thereafter, Minto filed a product liability action against a number of product defendants. Minto also sued the defendant, alleging that they had negligently and/or intentionally destroyed or disposed of the key components of the vehicle, making it virtually impossible for Minto to prove his product liability claims against the other defendants.

The employer answered the plaintiff's Complaint and pled the bar of the Workers' Compensation Act. The defendant then filed a Motion for Summary Judgment based on statutory immunity. The trial court granted this Motion, finding that Minto's claims against the defendant/employer were barred by the exclusivity provisions of the Act. Minto filed a timely Notice of Appeal and asked the Superior Court to determine whether, under the facts of this case, the exclusivity provisions of the Act preclude the plaintiff from recovering against his employer.

The Superior Court began its analysis by recognizing the legislative intent of the Act and acknowledging that Pennsylvania case law had previously grafted "certain limited exceptions" onto the exclusivity provision. Specifically, the court noted that there is an exception where it is determined that the injury did not arise in the course of employment, for example, where an employee sued her employer in negligence after she was sexually assaulted by a co-worker. The court had found that the employee was on a break and not at her work station or performing a work-related task at the time of the assault and, therefore, that the assault was not a work-related occurrence. The court held that the attack was "purely personal" and not related to employment. As such, the court recognized the "third-party attack exception" to the exclusivity provision. Krasevic v. Goodwill Industries, 2000 Pa. Super 348, 764 A.2d 561 (Pa. Super. 2000).

In Minto, the court found an exception to immunity for spoliation of evidence by the employer. In his Complaint, Minto alternatively alleged that (1) he was not an employee (having been fired shortly after the accident) or (2) that, if he was an employee, he was not engaged in the furtherance of the business affairs of the employer at the time the evidence was destroyed by the employer. Minto did not sue his employer for his physical injuries. Rather, he alleged economic damages as a result of the actions of the employer in destroying the evidence.

In its analysis, the Superior Court reiterated that the focus of the exclusivity provisions of the Act is to limit the liability of an employer for injuries arising in the course of the employee's employment. The court pointed out that the exclusivity provision applies where an employee "sustained" an "injury" while "actually engaged in the furtherance of the business or affairs of the employer." Without further analysis, the court stated, "We conclude that Minto's alleged claims are not barred by the Act."

The Superior Court has thus created another, narrow exception to workers' compensation immunity, this one where the defendant/employer's actions resulted in the "spoliation" of evidence relative to the employee's claim. "Spoliation" is generally defined as the act of despoiling or plundering. Note the spelling. Spoliation has nothing to do with "spoiling" anything. The derivation of the legal usage probably has to do with the "taking" or "destroying" of a legal claim or defense.

While seemingly a narrow holding, this decision has potential ramifications for many employers. Frequently, when an employee is injured on the job by a tool or piece of equipment, the product belongs to, or is in the possession of, the employer. Naturally, the employer wants to get the equipment back into service as soon as possible and undertakes to make necessary repairs. The instant case is instructive in that the sub-text of the opinion is to notify employers that they could be exposed to potentially serious claims by their employees if they fail to take proper measures to preserve evidence and/or to give notice and opportunity to employees and their counsel to inspect the relevant pieces of equipment.

Hopefully, this decision does not presage further inroads into the shield of workers' compensation immunity by the courts of Pennsylvania.

* Frank is the managing shareholder of our Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, office and can be reached at (484) 895-2323 or fabaker@mdwcg.com.

Defense Digest, Vol. 15, No. 3, September 2009