Georgia Court of Appeals Holds that Employee's Death Not Causally Connected to Work and Tort Claim Therefore Not Barred by Workers' Compensation Remedy

The Georgia Court of Appeals recently addressed the necessary causal connection between a workplace injury and compensation under the Georgia Workers' Compensation Act. In Sturgess v. OA Logistics Services, Inc. et al., the court stated that because workers’ compensation provides an exclusive remedy for workplace injuries, the suffered injury must be connected to the workplace. In this case, the relative of a deceased worker argued that her son's fatality did not arise out of his employment. The appellate court agreed that her tort claim for compensation should not be barred by workers' compensation.

Plaintiff Maria Sturgess appealed the lower court's judgment that her wrongful death claim on behalf of her son was barred by the exclusive remedies set forth in the Georgia Workers' Compensation Act ("WCA"). Ms. Sturgess's son, Nickifor Zephyrine, worked for Staffchex, Inc. at a warehouse owned and operated by OA Logistics Services, Inc. ("OA"). At the time of his death, Mr. Zephyrine was at work, and the issue before the appellate court was whether his death arose out of his employment.

The facts demonstrate that Mr. Zephyrine was shot by another OA employee, a convicted felon who began working at the OA warehouse before his criminal background check was complete.

Ms. Sturgess sued OA, Staffchex, and the co-worker who shot Mr. Zephyrine. OA moved for summary judgment on the grounds that Ms. Sturgess's claim was barred because at the time of his death, her son was in the course and scope of his employment. After the lower court granted summary judgment on behalf of OA and Staffchex, reasoning that the tort claims were barred against them by the WCA, Ms. Sturgess appealed.

On appeal, the court stated that for accidents that "arise out of and in the course of employment," the WCA is the exclusive remedy. In this case, the appellate court found that Mr. Zephyrine's death occurred in the course of his employment, as he was at work, performing work duties. The issue was whether his death "arose out of" his employment.

Here, the court stated that "arising out of" requires a causal connection between conditions of work and the injury suffered. The question is whether the injury follows as a natural incident of the work, contemplated by a person familiar with the work situation. On the other hand, if the injury could not be traced to the employment as a cause, and stems from a hazard to which the worker would have been exposed apart from their employment, then it is not a contributing proximate cause.

In this case, the court stated there was no connection between the attack on Mr. Zephyrine and his work. The appellate court rejected Staffchex's contention that under the positional risk doctrine, Mr. Zephyrine's death arose from his employment. This doctrine states that an accidental injury can arise out of employment when an employee shows his work brought him within range of the danger, even though another person would have been injured regardless of their employment. The court stated that cases applying this doctrine have still required a causal connection between the employment and the injury

The court of appeals reversed the lower court ruling, holding that the trial court erred by finding the exclusive remedy for Mr. Zephyrine's death was compensation through the WCA.

If you or a loved one has suffered from a workplace accident, you may be entitled to workers' compensation. At the Law Offices of Nathaniel F. Hansford, a knowledgeable injury attorney can advise you of your legal rights. We provide a free, confidential consultation. Our offices can be reached by calling (770) 922-3660 or through our online form.

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