A worker who unintentionally shot a co-worker can be sued in civil court since his actions were outside the scope of his normal duties and despite the fact the employer treated the shooting like a workers’ compensation claim, the Georgia Supreme Court recently ruled.
At issue before the high court was the application of a landmark workers’ compensation case [Ridley v. Monroe, 256 Ga. App 686 (2002)] that found if a worker receives benefits for an on-the-job injury the worker cannot then sue a fellow co-worker even if the worker was responsible for the accident and acting outside his or her normal duties.
The state’s high court upheld the Ridley principle but carved an exception due to the particular facts of the Smith case that it said allow a civil suit.
The case that rose to the Supreme Court [Smith et.al v. Ellis, S12A1174] had its genesis in a Georgia District Court of Appeals case where the judges split 6-6 on the issue of whether Ridley should be upheld. The matter then went before the state’s high court.
At stake are the circumstances in which an injured worker can sue a co-employee responsible for his injury in civil court.
The Smith case started due to a February 2009 incident between Joseph Smith and John Ellis, both of whom were employed by Georgia housing construction firm, The Knight Group.
The two men worked at different housing subdivisions. Ellis asked Smith if he could meet him at Smith’s job site so he could borrow a tool and test fire an AR-15 rifle he had just recently bought.
Ellis began firing his new rifle at a nearby undeveloped lot while Smith worked near his truck. The rifle jammed three times. Ellis unjammed the rifle twice, but the third time he accidentally shot Smith with the bullet, penetrating his right leg into his left leg leaving him seriously wounded.
The Knight Group subsequently fired both men. But when Smith filed a workers’ compensation claim saying the incident happened on the job, the company agreed to pay him $6,000 with the stipulation that it was not a compensable claim.
Under Georgia state law, employers and injured workers can agree to a “no liability” settlements, whereby an injured worker can receive a lump-sum payment while holding the employer harmless for any future legal action requesting medical or wage-loss benefits.
The settlement triggers the “exclusive remedy” portion of the workers’ compensation law and blocks the injured worker from seeking further action against a co-worker or employer.
But Smith later sued Ellis for negligence and Smith’s wife sued for loss of consortium based on the argument that Ellis was not acting in the capacity of “employee of the same employer” and therefore could be sued.
At the trial court level, the court found for Ellis based on the Ridley case, maintaining that since Ellis received a workers’ compensation settlement he had no standing to sue Smith.
Upon appeal, however, the Georgia District Court of Appeals split 6-6 on the issue of whether Ridley should be overturned given the facts of the case.
District appeals court Judge Anne Barnes, writing for in favor of overturning Ridley, said that Smith’s injury did not constitute a compensable act because “no rational mind can see a causal connection in this case between the conditions of Smith’s employment and his injury.”
As a result, Barnes said that by blocking Smith’s right to sue, Ridley was “illogical” and should be overturned.
Writing in favor of Ridley, appeals court Judge Gary Andrews said that since Smith accepted the workers’ compensation settlement he essentially agreed with the state law barring any further action. Andrews wrote that overturning Ridley would gut the exclusive remedy provision of the workers’ compensation law and would “flout the [law’s] command that it be interpreted liberally to bring both employers and employees within its scope.”
In its decision on the Smith case, the state Supreme Court upheld Ripley, stating the case correctly interpreted the intent of the state’s workers’ compensation law. However it also opened the door to further suits in the Smith case.
Supreme Court Judge David Nahmias said Ridley rightly prevented injured workers from reaching a workers’ compensation settlement with an employer only to “turn around and sue the employer now alleging that the injury was not compensable, hoping that the court will disregard the prior resolution of the case.”
However, the high court did not stop there and outlined a possible exception to the Ridley ruling.
Nahmias noted that a substantial argument could be made that at the time of the shooting Ellis was not acting as an “employee of the same employer.” Among other things, he noted Ellis was not at his job site, was not engaged in his normal work duties, and was acting in a manner that his “employer did not condone, much less direct.”
Nahmias said such an exception should be possible because if Ridley prevented an injured worker from suing a co-employer or employer as was the case in the Ellis case, it could open the door to other workers’ compensation claims the law never anticipated.
“As long as the plaintiff happened to be employed by the same employer and working at the time of the injury, it would make no difference whether the co-employee defendant was at work, off-duty, or even on vacation when the injury occurred,” wrote Nahmias.