In answering a question certified to it by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, the New York State Court of Appeals ruled in Isabella v. Koubek that a defendant in a car accident class can’t pursue a third-party contribution claim for vicarious liability when the at-fault driver is shielded by New York Workers’ Compensation Law.
New York City car accident attorneys view this case as a good example of how a seemingly simple crash can become a complex legal issue, particularly when any of those involved were on-the-job at the time.
Workers’ compensation is intended to be an exclusive remedy when a worker suffers an on-the-job injury in New York. It is meant to insulate employers from being sued every time a worker is hurt. However, workers may still be entitled to pursue third-party liability action against other parties.
For example, a subcontractor on a construction site suffers a fall. That worker can file a workers’ compensation claim, but might also file a personal injury action against the owner of the building for unsafe conditions.
In the Isabella case, the claim arose from an on-the-job auto accident in 2007. The plaintiff was a passenger in a vehicle driven by his co-worker and owned by her husband. The pair were returning from a business meeting, and so were technically “on the job.”
The passenger sustained serious injuries when they collided with another vehicle.
He was precluded by state workers’ compensation laws from bringing any action against his co-worker. Instead, he received workers’ compensation benefits through their mutual employer.
Subsequently, however, passenger and his wife filed a personal injury lawsuit in federal court against the driver of the other vehicle and her husband, who owned the car. He contended that the negligent operation of vehicle No. 2 caused his injuries.
The driver of vehicle No. 2 then filed a third-party complaint against the co-worker’s husband, owner of vehicle No. 1, seeking contribution and indemnification, asserting that the crash had been the fault of the first driver. They further maintained that her husband was vicariously liable for negligent entrustment of the vehicle.
The owner of vehicle No. 1 moved for a summary judgment to dismiss the third-party contribution claim, arguing that his wife’s statutory immunity under state workers’ compensation laws shielded him from a claim of vicarious liability. The U.S. District Court of the Northern District of New York denied his motion, allowing the third-party contribution claim to proceed.
An $800,000 settlement agreement was reached, with the parties agreeing to allow a jury to apportion liability between the owner of vehicle No. 1 and the driver of car No. 2. The jury determined that the owner of vehicle No. 1 was 90 percent liable, due to his wife’s negligence, and the driver of car No. 2 was 10 percent liable.
The owner of vehicle No. 1 appealed, and the issue of the third-party contribution claim was certified to the state appellate court. The court answered that the claim was barred under state workers’ compensation law, meaning driver No. 2 will shoulder the entire settlement burden, despite her limited apportionment of fault from the jury.
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Isabella v. Koubek, March 27, 2014, New York State Court of Appeals
More Blog Entries:
N.Y. Construction Firms Must Provide Workers With Proper Protection, March 15, 2014, New York City Car Accident Lawyer Blog