Workers’ Compensation Immunity in Florida Construction Accidents – Gonzalez v. JW Cheatham LLC

Worksite injuries are not only serious matters that can cause severe injury and prevent employees from returning to the job, they also often raise complicated legal issues as to the relationship among workers and employers. In Gonzalez v. JW Cheatham LLC, Florida’s Fourth District Court of Appeals looks at one of these issues: workers’ compensation immunity.

Mr. Gonzalez was injured in a September 2009 dump truck accident while working on a construction project. Six months earlier, he signed a contract with Austin Tupler in which he agreed to transport materials on the site using his truck. Austin Tupler was a subcontractor on the project, working under general contractor JW Cheatham. Gonzalez was hauling a load on the project at the time of the accident and was injured when the vehicle overturned. He and his wife later sued JW Cheatham for negligence.

A trial court granted summary judgment to the company, finding that Gonzalez’s claims were barred by workers’ compensation immunity. Contractors and subcontractors are immune from suit by an employee of another subcontractor for injuries sustained on a construction project under Florida law, so long as the employee’s company has workers’ compensation insurance for its own employees and the injury wasn’t caused by the other company’s gross negligence. The law provides an exception, however, for “an owner-operator of a motor vehicle who transports property under a written contract with a motor carrier” under circumstances in which the owner-operator assumes the role of an employer. Here, the trial judge said Gonzalez qualified as Austin Tupler’s employee – and was therefore barred from suing JW Cheatham for the accident – because the service contract that he signed with the former company indicated that he was a “broker,” rather than an owner-operator.

The Fourth District disagreed on appeal. “The issue in this case turns on whether the plaintiff was under a written contract ‘with a motor carrier,’ as it is undisputed that the plaintiff otherwise meets the necessary elements for owner-operator status,” the court explained.

While Florida law doesn’t define a “broker” for workers’ compensation immunity purposes, the court said federal law defined the term as a person who isn’t a motor carrier or an agent of a motor carrier, but who offers motor carrier services in exchange for compensation. The parties disputed whether federal law was relevant to the case, given that it concerned state law claims and the application of the state law workers’ compensation exception. Yet, the court said JW Cheatham shouldn’t have been granted summary judgment because there remained a fact issue as to whether Gonzalez should have been considered to be under a written contract with a motor carrier.

As a result, the court reversed the trial judge’s decision and remanded the case for further proceedings.

If you or a loved one was recently injured in a worksite accident, contact the South Florida personal injury attorneys at Anidjar & Levine today. Our lawyers represent clients throughout South Florida, including in Hialeah, Coral Springs and Pompano Beach, and are dedicated to achieving the maximum possible recovery for clients following an accident. Call the firm’s Ft. Lauderdale offices at 800-747-3733 or fill out an on-line “Contact Us” form.

Related blog posts:

Proving Gross Negligence in Florida Worksite Accidents – Vallejos v. Lan Cargo S.A.

Court Says Florida Store Not Liable for Parking Lot Accident – Ramsey v. Home Depot

Comparative Negligence in Florida Personal Injury Cases – Hartong v. Bernhart