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Court Addresses Standard for Gross Negligence against a Subcontractor in a Third Party Lawsuit Otherwise Covered by Worker’s Compensation – Villalta v. Cornn International, Inc., 109 S.3d 278 (Fla. 1st DCA 2013)

Employees injured in a workplace accident generally must rely on the worker’s compensation system as the exclusive remedy against their employer.  Although worker’s compensation benefits provide an efficient avenue for obtaining wage replacement and free medical care, the amount of compensation typically falls short of a civil lawsuit which permits access to compensation for pain and suffering, emotional distress, and other types of damages.  While an injured employee can seek damages in a personal injury lawsuit against a third party in Florida, the level of negligent conduct must be more egregious than in a personal injury lawsuit unrelated to a workplace accident or illness.

In Villalta v. Cornn International Inc., the court considered the level of negligence that must be established for a subcontractor (other than the employer of the injury victim) to be subject to third party liability.  The estate of a deceased worker sued a HVAC subcontractor seeking damages after the decedent fell from a scaffolding.  The decedent worked for a subcontractor hired to install drywall when he fell from a scaffolding that collapsed.  The HCAC subcontractor failed to cover a cut-out.  Safety standards mandated that coverings be fastened to the floor and painted to warn of the danger.  A wheel of the scaffold dropped into the cut out and caused the scaffolding to topple.

The HVAC subcontractor claimed immunity from suit under the worker’s compensation statute.  The statute extends immunity from civil liability to a subcontractor brought by an injury victim of another subcontractor on the same project except in cases of gross negligence.  The HVAC company claimed that the evidence did not establish this level of egregious conduct.  The trial court granted the HCAC company’s motion for summary judgment based on this contention.

On appeal, the court reiterated that a subcontractor that provides services on the same project as another subcontractor has limited immunity from suit by an employee of the other subcontractor.  However, the non-employer subcontractor can be liable for damages in a civil lawsuit provided certain conditions are satisfied, which includes evidence the injury or death was significantly caused by the “gross negligence” of the party being sued.

The appellate court indicated the standard for gross negligence has been articulated by Florida courts in this context as “encompassing a composite of circumstances which create a clear and present danger of serious harm, where the defendant who was aware or charged with knowledge of such danger acts in conscious disregard of that danger.”  The court found that summary judgment in favor of the HVAC subcontractor was improper because the facts above were sufficient to meet the gross negligence standard.

If you or a family member has been injured in a workplace accident or suffered an occupational illness, the Florida Workplace Injury Lawyers at Greenberg, Stone & Urbano offer the assistance you need to obtain the results you desire.  With over 130 collective years of experience representing occupational injury victims across South Florida, our firm provides legal representation of unmatched excellence.  Contact our firm as soon as possible to start on the road to protecting your legal rights.  Our firm received an AV rating from Martindale Hubbell and was ranked as a top firm in South Florida by the Miami Herald.   Put our exceptional on-the-job accident attorneys to work on your case.  Call us at (888) 499-9700 or (305) 595-2400 or you can visit our website to schedule your initial consultation.

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