Willful or Wanton Disregard Employee Exposure to COVID-19 Will Not Overcome the Exclusivity of the Pennsylvania Workers Compensation Act (PA)
In Renata Barker v. Tyson Foods, Inc., the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania dismissed a complaint by plaintiff Renata Barker, as administratix of the estate of her deceased husband, Brian Barker. The complaint alleged that Brian’s employer, Tyson, caused his death through COVID-19 exposure. The plaintiff further alleged that Tyson implemented no safety measures, made working conditions more hazardous, did not require employees to use PPE, and maintained a work-while-sick policy. Additionally, it was alleged Brian Barker, who had diabetes and high blood pressure, was directed twice to deliver a laptop to his manager who had COVID-19. As such, plaintiff further claimed fraudulent and intentional misrepresentation on the part of Tyson.
The Pennsylvania Workers Compensation Act generally bars any litigation claims from employees as against their employers, as the WC regime is generally the sole remedy. However, the U.S. District Court explained that one narrow exception to the exclusivity provision of the Pennsylvania Workers Compensation Act “are claims for the aggravation of an employee’s work-related injury where the employer’s fraudulent misrepresentation has been alleged.” The employer’s misrepresentation must result in an aggravation of a pre-existing injury. Since the plaintiff only alleged that her deceased husband had diabetes and blood pressure, there was no suggestion that either condition has been caused by his work at the meatpacking plant. In other words, the Court determined that the claimed injuries were not aggravated by COVID-19.
Since the pandemic began, there has been no doubt as to countless employers being accused of misrepresentations and disregard for employee safety with respect to COID-19. This case demonstrates that despite contracting COVID-19 in the workforce, as so many people have, it will not be enough to overcome the exclusivity of the PWCA. It must be shown that contracting COVID-19 aggravated the pre-existing injuries that were caused by work responsibilities.
Thanks to Gina Rodriguez for her contribution to this article. Should you have any questions, please contact Matthew Care.