This post was contributed by Joseph S. Sileo, Esq., a new addition to McNees Wallace & Nurick LLC's Labor and Employment Law Practice Group.
As employers know all too well, an employee who is injured in connection with work can receive workers' compensation benefits simply by establishing that the injury occurred in the course of employment and resulted in a loss of wages. Proof of employer negligence or fault is not required. In exchange for this benefit, workers' compensation is generally the "exclusive remedy" for employees who sustain work-related injuries. In other words, injured employees are not permitted to sue their employers for negligence in connection with their injuries. This exclusive remedy reflects the public policy bargain between employers and employees underlying Pennsylvania's workers' compensation system, by which workers give up the right to bring personal injury suits against their employers in court in exchange for the guaranty of workers' compensation benefits for work-related injuries.
Pennsylvania's Workers' Compensation Act does not, however, prevent injured employees from taking legal action against third parties, such as an employer's clients, customers or vendors. For example, an employee who is injured while working on the property of an employer's client may, in some circumstances, file a workers' compensation claim against his or her employer and file a lawsuit against the client for negligence.
A recent decision by Pennsylvania's Supreme Court confirms that employers can take steps to prevent such employee-initiated third party lawsuits relating to injuries covered by workers' compensation. In Bowman v. Sunoco, a security guard employee was injured during work when she fell on an icy sidewalk at a facility owned by her employer's client. In addition to filing a claim with her employer for workers' compensation benefits, the employee also sued the client for negligence. The Court held that a disclaimer signed by the employee when she was hired – stating that she waived her rights to sue the employer's clients for injuries covered by workers' compensation – was valid and precluded the employee's lawsuit against the employer's client.
For obvious reasons, employers have an interest in protecting their clients, customers and vendors from embarrassing, costly and time-consuming employee lawsuits. In light of the Bowman decision, employers should consider using disclaimers to prevent employee lawsuits against third parties relating to work injuries covered by workers' compensation. Such disclaimers may be particularly useful in the case of employees who routinely have direct interaction with an employer's customers and vendors, or who perform work at client facilities or other remote locations.
Feel free to contact any member of the McNees Wallace & Nurick Labor and Employment Practice Group for assistance with labor and employment law issues and/or if you have any questions regarding this article.