Florida’s Second District Court of Appeal Reverses in Contractor Personal Injury Suit

Florida’s Workers’ Compensation Law extends immunity to contractors and subcontractors. As is to be expected, however, in order for such immunity to bar suit in a particular case, the company must fall within the applicable definition of “contractor.” Indeed, many companies may be in relationships that analogize to contract relationships but cannot—despite their best efforts otherwise—have recourse to the Workers’ Compensation Law to immunize themselves for injuries arising from their negligence. The scope of what constitutes a contractor for purposes of the Workers’ Compensation Law was at the heart of a recent decision from Florida’s Second District Court of Appeal, Slora v. Sun ‘n Fun Fly-In, Inc.

The plaintiff in this case was employed by U.S. Security Associates, Inc., a company that provided event security to Sun ‘n Fun Fly-In, Inc., a company that operated an air show near Lakeland, Florida. In order to operate this air show, Sun ‘n Fun was required to obtain certain certificates of waiver from the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”). The FAA granted the waivers, which came with various standard and specialized provisions with which Sun ‘n Fun needed to comply, including provisions for security. Sun n’ Fun contracted with U.S. Security to provide these required security measures, and the plaintiff was assigned to provide security during the air show. The plaintiff was working at a security guard shack at Lakeland Regional Airport when a tornado struck. The winds lifted the shack from the ground and deposited it in a ditch. The plaintiff made a workers’ compensation claim through her employer, which maintains workers’ compensation insurance. The claim was settled.

The plaintiff then brought a negligence suit against Sun ‘n Fun, alleging that the company failed to keep the shack in a reasonably safe condition, given that the tornado was a foreseeable occurrence. Following discovery, the defendant moved for summary judgment, arguing that workers’ compensation immunity applied and barred the plaintiff’s claim. The defendant argued that it was entitled to immunity because the FAA certificates of waiver imposed an obligation to provide security, which was subcontracted to U.S. Security. The plaintiff argued in opposition that the certificates were not contracts and therefore could not serve as a basis for concluding that Sun ‘n Fun was a contractor to the FAA and that U.S. Security was a subcontractor to Sun ‘n Fun. The trial court granted the motion. The Second District, however, concurred with the plaintiff and reversed.

Under Florida’s Workers’ Compensation Law, every employer is required to maintain insurance that provides medical and disability benefits for employees injured on the job. Section 440.10(1)(a), Florida Statutes. By maintaining proper insurance, the employer is immunized from certain tort liability. Cent. Fla. Lumber Unlimited, Inc. v. Qaqish, 12 So. 3d 766, 769 (Fla. 2d DCA 2009). This immunity extends to certain contractors and subcontractors. However, to qualify as a contractor, the defendant’s “primary obligation in performing a job or providing a service must arise out of a contract.” Derogatis v. Fawcett Mem’l Hosp., 892 So. 2d 1079, 1083 (Fla. 2d DCA 2004) (citation omitted). Accordingly, immunity doesn’t apply simply because Sun ‘n Fun enlisted U.S. Security to provide security services. Instead, the obligation to provide security services must have arisen from a contractual relationship. See id.

In this case, the Second District did not find the defendant’s obligation to provide security arose from a contract. Instead, the court reasoned that the certificates of waiver at issue were more analogous to regulatory permits or licenses. Indeed, a contract is a bargained-for exchange between two parties, see Restatement (Second) of Contracts §§ 1, 17, 22, while a regulatory permit is an instrument that allows a party to engage in an activity normally prohibited under law, subject to certain conditions set forth by an issuing government authority. The Second District reviewed a number of cases establishing that a contractual relationship is not created by the issuance of a regulatory permit that sets forth compliance provisions. Furthermore, the Second District reviewed the language of the certificates of waiver and found the conditions set forth to be indistinguishable from those of a standard regulatory permit. The defendant argued that treating it like a “contractor” nonetheless comported with the legislative intent of the Workers’ Compensation Law, especially since the purported subcontractor employer did maintain sufficient workers’ compensation insurance. Notwithstanding whether there is any validity to this argument, the Second District still reasoned that the interpretation of the term “contractor” should be guided by the plain and unambiguous terms of the statute and not broad appeals to legislative intent. See, e.g., Gallagher v. Manatee Cnty., 927 So. 2d 914, 918-19 (Fla. 2d DCA 2006) (“When a statute is clear, courts will not look behind the statute’s plain language for legislative intent . . . .” (citation omitted)). Accordingly, the Second District concluded that in the absence of a contractual relationship, the defendant could not be considered a contractor under Florida’s Workers’ Compensation Law and thus was not immune from tort liability arising from its alleged negligence.

The Second District’s ruling is a major victory for the plaintiff in this case, who will be able to argue the merits of her claim to a jury. Nevertheless, Florida’s Workers’ Compensation Law does bar many claims that injured employees wish to pursue against an employer, including contractors and subcontractors of their employers. Accordingly, those injured on the job should consider finding competent counsel who can properly assess whether immunity applies to a particular claim or if workers’ compensation benefits are indeed the only recourse available. The South Florida workplace accident attorneys at Frankl Kominsky Injury Lawyers have represented many injured Florida workers, and they are ready to provide you with the benefits of their experience. If you’ve recently been injured on the job and are considering your options for legal recovery, feel free to contact us for a free case evaluation.

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