Florida’s First District Court of Appeal Delineates Limits of Workers’ Compensation Immunity

In a recent decision, Mathis v. Sacred Heart Health Sys., Inc., Florida’s First District Court of Appeal reminded the lower courts that there are indeed limits to workers’ compensation immunity. Indeed, in a brief decision, the First District reversed a trial court order granting summary judgment in favor of a building owner that argued it was entitled to workers’ compensation immunity for injuries sustained by an employee of a cleaning company that had been contracted to provide cleaning services at the building.

The injuries at issue in this case occurred at Nemours Children’s Clinic, which is owned by Sacred Heart Health Systems, Inc. The injured employee worked for Coverall Service Company, which, pursuant to a contract with Sacred Heart, provided cleaning services at Nemours. While cleaning, the employee slipped and fell as a result of alleged negligence on the part of Sacred Heart in maintaining the property in a safe condition. After collecting workers’ compensation benefits, the employee brought a premises liability action against Sacred Heart. Following discovery, Sacred Heart moved for summary judgment, arguing that they were entitled to immunity pursuant to Section 440.11(1) of Florida’s workers’ compensation law. The trial court agreed and granted the defendant’s motion. The employee then brought the current appeal.

Section 440.11(1) provides that when “a contractor sublets any part . . .  of his or her contract work to a subcontractor . . ., all of the employees of such contractor and subcontractor . . . engaged on such contract work shall be deemed to be employed in one and the same business.” Fla. Stat. 440.11(1). In addition, “the contractor shall be liable for . . . the payment of [workers’] compensation [payments] to all such employees” except when the the subcontract has independently “secured such payment.” Id. Accordingly, based on the plain language of Section 440.10, immunity only exists if Sacred Heart was itself a “contractor” that had subcontracted the cleaning work to Coverall, not simply if Sacred Heart had a contract with Coverall to provide cleaning services.

In this case, the record did not establish that Sacred Heart was a “contractor.” Indeed, although Sacred Heart argued that an implied contract to clean the premises existed between it and the patients at Nemours, the First District noted that the contract could not be predicated simply on Sacred Heart having a “general duty to exercise reasonable care.” Rabon v. Inn of Lake City, Inc., 693 So. 2d 1126, 1132 (Fla. 1st DCA 1997).  In this case, the record was bereft of evidence showing that any contract, either express or implied, existed between Sacred Heart and the patients at Nemours. Instead, the purported contract was nothing more than a recitation of the duty of reasonable care placed on Sacred Heart to provide clean facilities to patients. Since there was no evidence of a contract, the First District concluded that Sacred Heart was not a contractor and thus not entitled to immunity under Section 440.11(1).

As this case aptly demonstrates, compensation for injuries sustained “on the job” is not always barred by workers’ compensation law. Indeed, even though an employee may not be able to bring suit for his or her immediate employer’s negligence, he or she may be able to recover compensation when the injuries are a result of the negligence of other potential parties. If you’ve been injured on the job and think it may have been a result of the negligence of a party who is not your employer, you should consider conferring with experienced counsel to determine whether you have a viable negligence claim. The South Florida construction accident attorneys at Frankl and Kominsky are well versed in the details of liability under Florida’s workers’ compensation law, and they are prepared to discuss the viability of a potential claim. Feel free to contact us if you are interested in a free case consultation.

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