The interaction between a release and worker’s compensation laws for an employee

If you are injured at work and covered by worker’s compensation you cannot sue your employer. However, you might be able to sue a third party who may be liable for injury.

However, the employer of the plaintiff had the plaintiff sign a release that prevented the employee from suing the place where he was injured, which was upheld by the court.

Merlien v. JM Family Enters, 2020 Fla. App. LEXIS 10525

State: Florida, Court of Appeal of Florida, Fourth District

Plaintiff: Diveston Merlien, Appellant

Defendant: JM Family Enterprises, Inc., Sheridan 441, LLC and Bendles Rentals, LLC

Plaintiff Claims: premises liability

Defendant Defenses: release

Holding: for the defendant

Year: 2020

Summary

The defendant security firm provided onsite security personnel to its clients. The security firm required its employees to sign a release that limited their recovery for an injury to their worker’s compensation benefits. The release would not be effective necessarily against the employer. However, it was effective in keeping the employee from suing the customer of the security firm.

Facts

The plaintiff was employed by AlliedBarton, a firm that provides security services for various clients. He was assigned to work as a security guard for one of those clients. The plaintiff was allegedly injured due to a slip and fall on stairs at the JM facility where he was assigned to work. He subsequently filed a premises liability suit against JM, alleging that his slip and fall was proximately caused by JM’s negligent maintenance of the stairs.

The primary focus of this appeal is the enforceability of a waiver which the plaintiff signed as a condition of employment that prohibits suit against any customer of AlliedBarton for injuries covered by the workers’ compensation statutes.

Two years after the plaintiff filed his complaint, JM filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that the plaintiff waived his right to bring suit by executing the above waiver at the commencement of his employment. After hearing argument from both parties, the trial court granted JM’s motion for summary judgment. This timely appeal followed.

Analysis: making sense of the law based on these facts.

Worker’s compensation is an insurance system created to take care of the medical bills and lost wages of workers who are injured on the job. Before the creation of the worker’s compensation system, an injured worker had to sue an employer to recover their damages from the injury.

In return for receiving the benefits of worker’s compensation, you give up your right to sue the employer. You can waive those benefits, pay back any benefits or money paid and sue the employer, but that is usually an unwise investment in time and money.

In this case, the employer requested the employees to sign a release, so they could not sue third party customers of the employer. In this case, the security company that employed the plaintiff had their employees, such as the plaintiff, on the property of the customers. The release provided if the employee was injured in a claim that was covered by worker’s compensation, that was the extent of the recovery they could receive. They could not sue the customer of the employer for damages.

This is a smart move on the part of the employer. The employer would lose a customer every time an employee was hurt on the job if the employee sued the customer.

It is important to understand the release did not stop lawsuits against the employer, only customers of the employer. Worker’s compensation statutes stop lawsuits against the employer.

The plaintiff first argued the release was ambiguous and unenforceable. In Florida for a release was enforceable when the release could be read by an ordinary and knowledgeable person who understood what they were contracting away.

Florida courts have upheld the enforceability of exculpatory provisions in contracts only when the language of the provision clearly and unambiguously communicates the scope and nature of the disclaimer.

The law also required a clear an understandable intent.

…provisions are deemed to be unambiguous and enforceable when the language unequivocally demonstrates a clear and understandable intention for the defendant to be relieved from liability such that an ordinary and knowledgeable person will know what he or she is contracting away.

The court found the release was easily read, understood and had no confusing language or made any promises to the signor.

The next argument the plaintiff made was the release was void because it violated Florida’s public policy.

Public policy disfavors exculpatory contracts because they relieve one party of the obligation to use due care. . . . Nevertheless, because of a countervailing policy that favors the enforcement of contracts, as a general proposition, unambiguous exculpatory contracts are enforceable unless they contravene public policy.”

A release violates Florida’s public policy “it is injurious to the interests of the public or contravenes some established interest of society.” The plaintiff argued that Florida’s law allowed employees who received worker’s compensation payments to sue third parties and recover those benefits if the third parties were negligent.

The appellate court held that the law allowing those third-party lawsuits were not a mandatory law but a permissive law. It allowed the lawsuits but did not require them.

The court did open up one area that it might have sided with the plaintiff. If the release was mandatory for employment, the court stated the plaintiff could have rejected the release.

The court concluded by noting that the plaintiff voluntarily entered into the agreement and declined to invalidate the contract on the basis that it was offered on a “take it or leave it” basis.

However, the plaintiff did not plead that in this case or argue it at the time of his employment; Therefore, it was moot. The court also, in one effect closed the loop hole.

…the plaintiff here was not coerced into signing the agreement and voluntarily agreed, as a condition of employment, to limit his avenues for recovery with respect to any future injuries to the State’s workers’ compensation program. The disclaimer was limited in both scope and application and did not prevent the “the quick and efficient delivery of disability and medical benefits to an injured worker.”

The court held the release was valid and prevented the lawsuits against the customer of his employer.

So Now What?

This is a very interesting and carefully thought-out use of a release. The purpose is to keep the clients of the firm happy at the expense of its own employees.

However, it shows another way a release can be used to stop litigation.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Copyright 2020 Recreation Law (720) 334 8529

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