The Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently issued a significant decision enforcing the Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act’s (the act) exclusivity provision. See Franczyk v. The Home Depot, (Pa. April 19, 2023). The plaintiff, a Home Depot employee, was bitten by a customer’s dog, after which she underwent surgery and received workers’ compensation benefits. She sued Home Depot and her supervisors alleging her supervisors barred her from speaking with the dog owner or other witnesses, whose identities were never discovered by the incident investigation. The plaintiff claimed that, due to the acts and omissions of her supervisors, she was unable to file a third-party suit against the dog owner. Specifically, she argued Home Depot’s alleged failure to obtain the witnesses’ information and adequately investigate the incident prevented her from pursuing a claim.
Home Depot moved for summary judgment pursuant to the immunity provided by the exclusivity provision of the act; the trial and superior courts held an employee may sue an employer outside of the act where the employer’s failure to properly investigate a workplace injury denies the employee of the opportunity to file a third-party suit against the tortfeasor. The lower courts found that an employer cannot claim protection under the act’s exclusivity provision when its own alleged actions prevented an employee from filing a third-party claim. In a 6-0 opinion, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court reversed and remanded for entry of summary judgment in favor of Home Depot.
The Franczyk court addressed two key factors in deciding that the exclusivity provision applies to the facts at hand: the nature of the claim, and the severability between the work injury and the potential third-party claim. The decision, while maintaining long established statutory protections put in place to protect the public’s interests—via limited employer exposure and guaranteed compensation for injured employees—leaves open questions as to how Pennsylvania courts will apply those factors going forward.
As to the first factor, the nature of the claim, Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Debra Todd’s concurring opinion is instructive. While she agreed with the majority’s holding, she expressed concern that the majority opinion may be interpreted to preclude common law actions where an employer intentionally interferes with an employee’s statutory right to sue a tortfeasor. In fact, the majority specifically suggested that the act may not extend protections in certain contexts of an employer’s wrongful conduct. According to Todd, summary judgment should be granted because the plaintiff’s claims were based in negligence—without addressing the second factor—as that alone would resolve the case.
The majority, however, stressed the importance of the second factor. The court found that the act’s exclusivity provision immunized the defendants because the claimed injury—the dog bite—was “not truly separable” from the work injury. Here, the court pointed out that in Martin v. Lancaster Battery, 606 A. 2d 444 (Pa. 1992) “a critical consideration in that case was that the particular injury alleged was distinct from the workplace injury.” In a lengthy footnote, the majority addressed Todd’s concerns by stressing the “degree to which the two bases for Martin’s holding intertwine.”
To some extent, the majority may have provided a framework for cases where the act’s exclusivity provision would not foreclose future claims alleging employer misconduct by comparing the current decision with Martin and Kuney v. PMA Insurance, 578 A. 2d 1285 (Pa. 1990). Martin involved allegations that the employer made fraudulent misrepresentations to the employee resulting in an aggravation of the original injury, which was, according to the majority, “an injury onto itself.” Kuney, on the other hand, involved alleged representations made in bad faith by the employer’s insurer related to the refusal to pay the employee’s workers’ compensation claim, which was, according to the majority, “pertaining” to the claim and therefore, subject to the act. In cases that are “more like” Martin than Kuney, a court may be more inclined to allow claims against employers to proceed. At present, it appears the exclusivity provision will foreclose cases involving claims directly connected to the work injury, even in instances of willful conduct, but not those involving a distinct and separate injury.
The court’s final analysis, however, refused to consider that the alleged negligent actors, i.e., the supervisors, were co-workers of the plaintiff—distinguishing it from both Martin and Kuney. In Kulik v. Mash, 982 A.2d 85 (Pa. Super. 2009), the court was faced with injuries sustained when an employee backed his car into a co-worker’s car. The injured employee filed suit against his co-worker, alleging that the fellow employee was negligent. The court held that if an injury occurs within the scope of employment due to the negligence of a fellow employee—who is also in the scope of his or her employment—any private tort action between employees is barred by the act. Logically, vicarious tort action against the employer based upon the actions of those fellow employees also would be barred by the act. Notwithstanding, this analysis is missing from the Franczyk decision because, as the majority points out, the question is moot given its holding that the act’s exclusivity provision forecloses the claim.
Ultimately, had the court affirmed the lower courts, the immunity provided by the act—and the primary benefit of the Grand Bargain—would have been stripped and employers would be forced to defend against any lawsuit where an employee alleges his employer acted improperly in investigating a workplace injury or impeded recovery against a third-party tortfeasor.
Reprinted with permission from the October 10, 2023 edition of “Workers' Compensation.” © 2023 ALM Global Properties, LLC. All rights reserved. Further duplication without permission is prohibited, contact 877-256-2472 or firstname.lastname@example.org.