The Supreme Court of Georgia recently held that, in cases involving workplace injuries, a defendant may seek to apportion fault to the plaintiff’s employer, even though Georgia’s Workers’ Compensation Act immunizes employers from tort liability. Walker v. Tensor Machinery, Ltd., Walker v. Tensor Machinery, Ltd.__ S.E.2d __, 2015 WL 7135149 (2015).
Georgia’s apportionment statute, O.C.G.A. § 51-12-33(c), allows a jury to assign fault to any “persons or entities who contributed to the alleged injury or damages, regardless of whether the person or entity was, or could have been, named as a party to the suit.” However, the “exclusive remedy” provision of Georgia’s Workers’ Compensation Act (“WCA”) immunizes employers from tort lawsuits. O.C.G.A. § 34-9-11. An open question existed regarding the interplay of these two statutory provisions—did an employer’s statutory immunity from tort claims (under the WCA) preclude assignment of “fault” (under Georgia’s apportionment statute)? This is the question the Supreme Court of Georgia answered in Walker.
In that case, the plaintiff-employee sustained an on on-the-job injury while operating machinery designed and manufactured by the Tensor Defendants. The employee settled a workers’ compensation claim with his employer, then filed a negligence lawsuit against the Tensor Defendants in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia. In accordance with Georgia’s apportionment scheme, the Tensor Defendants gave notice that they intended to assign fault to the non-party employer. The employee moved to exclude any evidence concerning fault or liability of the employer (under the apportionment statute) because the employer was immune from tort liability (under the WCA). In order to address this novel state law issue, the Northern District certified the question to the Supreme Court of Georgia.
The Georgia Supreme Court, invoking its recent decision in Zaldivar v. Prickett, 297 Ga. 589 (2015), held that statutory immunity from liability (under the WCA) does not preclude a finding of fault (under the apportionment statute). The Supreme Court stated that the policy behind the WCA’s “exclusive remedy” provision is to ensure that workers receive prompt compensation for work-related injuries without having to resort to litigation. The Court observed that “[a]llocating fault to an immune employer does not disturb this quid pro quo relationship between employee and employer or the legislative policy underlying it. A plaintiff may still obtain benefits, without having to prove the employer’s negligence, and the employer is still immune from liability.” Id. (quoting Ocasio v. Fed. Express Corp., 33 A.3d. 1139, 1147 (N.H. 2011).
The decision in Walker, while sensible, creates yet another obstacle to complete compensation for employees who suffer on-the-job injuries. Now, defendants can seek to apportion fault to non-party employers, even though those employers (a) cannot themselves be held liable in tort, and (b) generally speaking, will have paid less to resolve an employee’s claim (per the WCA’s statutory scheme) than would a typical tort defendant.