Georgia Supreme Court Rules Non-Party Employer’s Fault May be Considered in Lawsuit Despite Exclusive Remedy Provision Included in Workers’ Compensation Act

1-EG123 morguefile seogoigi.jpgThe Supreme Court of Georgia has ruled that a jury may apportion a percentage of fault to an employer that enjoys immunity under the Georgia Workers’ Compensation Act in a failure to warn case filed against a product manufacturer or distributor. In Walker v. Tensor Machinery, Ltd., a Georgia man was injured while operating a piece of machinery at work in August 2010. After obtaining workers’ compensation benefits from his employer, the man filed a lawsuit against the equipment manufacturer in the Northern District of Georgia. According to the hurt man, the manufacturer negligently failed to warn him about the safety defects in the equipment.

In response, the manufacturer sought to ask the jury to assign a percentage of responsibility for the injured man’s harm to his employer under OCGA § 51-12-33. The worker requested to exclude such evidence because a non-party employer was immune from liability under the exclusive remedy provision included in the workers’ compensation law. The Northern District then certified the question of whether a non-party employer’s percentage of fault may be taken into account in a damages lawsuit filed against a third party to the state’s Supreme Court.

According to the Georgia high court, immunity or another affirmative defense does not eliminate proximate cause. Instead, it bars a tortfeasor from liability. In addition, the court said other states similarly recognize that all tortfeasors should be considered when determining apportionment with regard to the cause of a hurt worker’s injury.

The court added there was no reason to believe that the Georgia Legislature did not intend for fault to be allocated against immune non-party employers, despite the injured employee’s claim that doing so would upset the “careful balance” struck by the General Assembly when it created the exclusive remedy provision of the Workers’ Compensation Act. According to the high court, the allocation of fault to an immune employer did not disturb the underlying legislative policy.

Next, the Supreme Court of Georgia dismissed the injured employee’s argument that assigning fault to a non-party employer would somehow undermine the employer’s limited right of subrogation enumerated in OCGA § 51-12-33(c). The Supreme Court of Georgia stated the employer’s right of subrogation was limited to the amount of damages collected from it by the hurt worker if the injured employee was fully compensated by a third party. The court said the goal of the subrogation statute was to ensure a hurt worker did not collect a double recovery for his or her workplace accident harm. The Georgia Supreme Court also stated the fact that an employer may be required to bear the cost of its own liability in lieu of a subrogation claim was not inherently unfair.

The court then disagreed with the injured worker’s assertion that allowing a non-party employer’s fault to be allocated would expose Georgia employers to significant litigation costs from which the Workers’ Compensation Act was designed to shield employers. The court said the exclusive remedy provision of the law allows an employer to avoid defending against tort litigation, whether or not fault is assigned to the employer. In addition, the court found that any discovery requirements imposed on a non-party employer as a result of apportionment did not constitute a new obligation under the law.

Since there was no reason to prohibit a jury or other fact finder from assigning fault to a non-party employer under § 51-12-33 of the Georgia Workers’ Compensation Act, the Supreme Court of Georgia answered the Northern District of Georgia’s question in the affirmative.

If you or someone close to you was injured in an Atlanta workplace accident, you should discuss your rights with a caring workers’ compensation lawyer as soon as possible. To schedule a free confidential consultation with a knowledgeable Fulton County workers’ compensation attorney, call the Law Offices of Nathaniel F. Hansford at (770) 922-3660 or contact us through our website.

Additional Resources:

Walker v. Tensor Machinery, Ltd., Ga: Supreme Court 2015

Photo credit: seogoigi, MorgueFile

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