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Supreme Court Rejects Narrowing Of Employer Immunity From Tort Liability, Under the Workers’ Compensation Act (PA)

June 2, 2023

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In the recent case of<em> <a href="">Franczyk v. Home Depot Inc.</a></em>, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania found that when relief in the form of workers’ compensation is available for a workplace injury, the exclusivity provision of Pennsylvania’s Workers’ Compensation Act (“WCA”), bars employees from also seeking tort relief against their employer.

Plaintiff-Franczyk suffered a dog bite, from a customer’s dog, while working at Home Depot. Franczyk was instructed by her employer not to have any further interaction with the offending customer on the day of the incident. She was ultimately diagnosed with injuries requiring surgery and claimed and received workers’ compensation under the WCA. Franczyk filed suit against Home Depot, alleging that by preventing her from investigating and  receiving necessary contact information from the customer, the store “denied her the opportunity to file a third-party suit against the dog owner.”

Home Depot moved for Summary Judgment on the grounds that they were immune from liability under the exclusivity provision of the WCA. This provision states:
<li><strong> 481. Exclusiveness of remedy; actions by and against third party; contract indemnifying third party</strong></li>
(a) The liability of an employer under this act shall be exclusive and in place of any and all other liability to such employes [<em>sic</em>] ... entitled to damages in any action at law or otherwise on account of any injury or death as defined in section 301(c)(1) and (2) or occupational disease as defined in section 108.

(b) In the event injury or death to an employe is caused by a third party, then such employe ... may bring [her] action at law against such third party, but the employer, his insurance carrier, their servants and agents, employes, representatives acting on their behalf or at their request shall not be liable to a third party for damages, contribution, or indemnity in any action at law, or otherwise, unless liability for such damages, contributions or indemnity shall be expressly provided for in a written contract entered into by the party alleged to be liable prior to the date of the occurrence which gave rise to the action.

The trial court denied summary judgment. It reasoned that an employer cannot utilize the statutory protections of § 481, when its alleged negligence prevented an employee from learning identifying information about the theoretical third-party whom the statute envisions employees will sue instead of their employers. Significantly, the trial court made no reference to any specific duty owed by employers, that could give rise to the type of negligence claim asserted against Home Depot in the present matter. The Superior Court affirmed the Trial court’s decision.

The Supreme Court rejected the lower courts’ finding. It reasoned that § 481 is the product of public policy compromise wherein “the employer assumes liability without fault for a work-related injury but is relieved of the possibility of a larger damages verdict in a common[-]law action. The employee benefits from the expeditious payment of compensation but forgoes recovery of some elements of damages.” In light of this public-policy context, the court determined that even intentional acts by an employer, are insufficient to pierce the employer-liability protections of § 481.

While the Court acknowledged the existence of a select few carve-outs to the Act, it ultimately determined that “the WCA has anticipated and foreclosed virtually any sort of negligence claim against an employer ‘on account of” a physical injury that occurs in the workplace.” The Court reversed and remanded the lower court’s decision and granted Summary Judgment to Home Depot.  <em>Franczyk </em>is a win for defendant-employers and their insurers as it limits the risk of duplicative liability for employers by correctly accounting for the public policy compromise set forth in § 481 of the WCA.

Thanks to Stephen Kerstein for his contribution to this article.  Should you have any questions, contact <a href="">Tom Bracken</a>.


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