Georgia Court of Appeals Determines Workers’ Compensation Liability of Contractor Employer
Although it’s common knowledge that workers’ compensation law prevents, in most circumstances, an employee from suing his or her immediate employer for injuries sustained in the course of employment, few know that the provisions barring suit can also extend immunity to contractors of the employer. The scope of tort immunity under Georgia’s workers’ compensation statute was recently reviewed by the Georgia’s Court of Appeals in its decision in Smith v. Graham Const. Co., Inc.
Even though Georgia’s Workers’ Compensation Act is at issue in this case, the workplace injuries under consideration actually occurred in North Carolina, where the plaintiff was working on a construction project for his direct employer, Edens Enterprises, LLC. The defendant in this case, Graham Construction Company, was the general contractor of that project. While engaged in this out-of-state construction project, the plaintiff sustained injuries, for which he received workers’ compensation benefits. Although he had received benefits, the plaintiff still chose to bring claims against the general contractor, contending that the contractor’s negligence caused his injuries. After initiation of the suit, the general contractor moved for summary judgment, arguing that the suit was barred by the exclusive remedy provision of the Georgia Workers’ Compensation Act set forth in O.C.G.A. § 34-9-11(a). The trial court granted the motion for summary judgment, and the plaintiff brought the current appeal.
First, O.C.G.A. § 34-9-8 provides that “a principal, intermediate, or subcontractor shall be liable for compensation to any injured employee to the same extent as the immediate employer.” Although Georgia’s Workers’ Compensation Act provides only three statutory exceptions to its exclusive remedy provision under O.C.G.A. § 34-9-11, the Supreme Court of Georgia, relying on the policy considerations associated with § 34-9-8, interpreted a fourth exception in its decision in Wright Associates v. Rieder. In Wright, the Supreme Court of Georgia held that “the injured employee of a subcontractor could not maintain a tort action against the principal contractor, even when the principal contractor did not pay workers’ compensation benefits.” Warden v. Hoar Constr. Co., 507 S.E.2d 428, 429-30 (1998). Since the Workers’ Compensation Act made these third-party employers statutory employers under the Act, the court reasoned that they, like immediate employers, should have the benefit of tort immunity. Accordingly, O.C.G.A. § 34-9-11 establishes immunity for both Edens Enterprises and Graham Construction Company.
Second, one may wonder why Georgia state law is being applied to this action, considering the injury at issue occurred in North Carolina. On appeal, the plaintiff argued that the trial court erred by applying Georgia rather than North Carolina worker’s compensation law in the case. The Court of Appeals, however, held that the application of Georgia law was not in error. Generally, the courts of Georgia apply the law of the state where a tort occurs in order to determine liability flowing from the commission of that tort. However, the courts of Georgia will not apply the law of another state when that law contravenes Georgia public policy. See Dowis v. Mud Slingers, Inc., 279 Ga. 808, 621 S.E.2d 413 (2005). In this case, the plaintiff was not only entitled to but also received Georgia workers’ compensation benefits, and it would be inconsistent with public policy to permit the worker to have entitlement to Georgia benefits but not enforce the exclusive remedy provision of that law. Since this case fell within the public policy exception to the general conflict of law rule, the court held that application of Georgia law was proper and affirmed the trial court’s judgment.
Although Georgia’s Workers’ Compensation Act does extend immunity to “statutory employers” that may include employers that are not the worker’s immediate employer, not all third-party employers will fall within the scope of the statutory employer definition. Furthermore, immunity also depends on an employer conforming its conduct to the requirements of the law. Thus, even if one has been injured in what seems to be a typical workplace accident, he or she should still consider hiring experienced counsel who can determine whether all possibly liable parties are indeed immune from suit. The workers’ compensation attorneys at the Law Office of Terrence R. Bethune have many years of experience litigating cases involving the Georgia Workers’ Compensation Act and prepared to answer the questions you may have. If you are interested in a free case evaluation, feel free to contact us.