Fourth District Court of Appeal Rules in Florida Injured Construction Worker Suit

The indoor ceiling architecture of airport terminal

The indoor ceiling architecture of airport terminal

Workplace injuries are an everyday occurrence. However, injuries in certain workplaces create more legal complications than others. For example, construction activities at a single site are not typically performed by a single entity. Instead, the realization of a construction project often involves the overlapping work of a general contractor and numerous subcontractors. Thus, when a worker is injured, there is often difficulty ascertaining which entities are at fault and, subsequently, what forms of immunity, if any, may apply to their negligence. The dynamics of construction site workplace liability was the subject of a recent decision of Florida’s Fourth District Court of Appeal, Ciceron v. Sunbelt Rentals, Inc.

The plaintiff in Ciceron was an employee of a subcontractor that had been enlisted by the general contractor to perform demolition work as part of the renovation of a large retail store. The general contractor had also recruited electrical subcontracting and wielding subcontracting services. The defendant, Sunbelt Rentals, Inc., rented scissor lifts to the electrical subcontractor and the wielding subcontractor per a separate rental agreement. On the day of his accident, the plaintiff in this case was working at the construction site. One of the scissor lifts became inoperable. A Sunbelt employee came to the site to remove the lift but encountered difficulty loading the lift onto a truck. The Sunbelt employee asked the plaintiff and several of his coworkers for assistance with the task. The Sunbelt employee instructed them on how to position the lift, but during the course of loading the plaintiff suffered severe bodily injuries that ultimately resulted in the amputation of his leg. The plaintiff brought suit against Sunbelt, asserting various theories of negligence and loss of consortium. Following discovery, Sunbelt moved for summary judgment, arguing that the plaintiff had already received workers’ compensation benefits for his injuries and that the claims were barred by horizontal immunity under Florida’s Workers’ Compensation Laws. The trial court granted the motion for summary judgment, and the plaintiff appealed.

The principal issue on appeal is whether Sunbelt qualified as a “subcontractor” for purposes of horizontal immunity under Florida’s Workers’ Compensation Laws. Immunity under the Workers’ Compensation Laws is broad and provides immunity to subcontractors and sub-subcontractors working at a site where a worker is injured. See § 440.10, Fla. Stat. (2004). However, the statutory scheme does not provide a definition for the term “subcontractor,” which has created difficulty for courts tasked with applying immunity pursuant to the statutory scheme. The plaintiff argued that Sunbelt’s agreement with the subcontractors was simply to provide equipment and not to engage in work at the site. Accordingly, Sunbelt could not be considered a “subcontractor” for purposes of the law. Alternatively, Sunbelt argued that its agreement with the subcontractors provided that it would not only provide equipment but also perform repair work, including on-site repair work, and provide training services for employees of the subcontractor.

The Fourth District sided with the plaintiff’s view of the issue. First, given the absence of a controlling definition, the court turned to related definitions of “subcontractor” utilized in analogous statutes. Reviewing the adduced evidence, the court determined that Sunbelt employees were not being used during the course of construction to operate the lifts or perform removal work. Indeed, Sunbelt employees were not performing work related to the tasks the subcontractors had been engaged to perform. Instead, the on-site tasks undertaken by Sunbelt employees were incidental to the subcontractors’ work. Since Sunbelt had not been engaged to perform work that had been contracted to the electrical and wielding subcontractors, the court determined that it could not be considered a subcontractor. Therefore, Sunbelt was not entitled to horizontal immunity pursuant to § 440.10, and the court reversed the trial court’s decision and remanded the case for trial on Sunbelt’s possible negligence.

Although the negligence of certain actors will likely always been subject to immunity under Florida’s Workers’ Compensation Laws, not every negligent party falls under the immunity umbrella. Indeed, injured workers can occasionally obtain relief beyond the bounds of the workers’ compensation scheme. Accordingly, workers injured in a construction site accident would benefit from seeking the aid of counsel who can assist in determining whether recovery outside workers’ compensation is obtainable. The South Florida construction accident attorneys at Frankl and Kominsky are well informed about the contours of Florida’s Workers’ Compensation Laws and ready to provide this sort of guidance. Feel free to contact us if you’ve been injured and are interested in the options you may have.

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