The Pennsylvania Supreme Court issued a significant decision this week, enforcing the Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act’s exclusivity provision. Franczyk v. The Home Depot, Inc. (Pa. April 19, 2023).
The plaintiff, Lindsay Franczyk, was working at a The Home Depot store when she was bitten by a customer’s dog. She reported the incident to her supervisors, who allegedly barred her from contacting the dog owner or any other witnesses. The supervisors spoke to several customers about the incident when it occurred but did not obtain any contact or identifying information. As a result of the dog bite, Franczyk developed cubital tunnel syndrome, which required surgery. She claimed and received workers’ compensation benefits.
Franczyk sued The Home Depot and her supervisors, asserting that their acts and omissions denied her the opportunity to file a third-party suit against the dog owner. Specifically, she alleged that the failure to adequately investigate the incident and obtain identifying information from witnesses prevented her from pursuing a claim.
The Home Depot moved for summary judgment, claiming immunity under the Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act’s (“WCA”) exclusivity provision. The Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas denied the motion, and the Superior Court affirmed, finding that an employer cannot claim protection under the WCA exclusivity provision when its own actions prevented an employee from filing a third-party claim against the person responsible for her injury. The Home Depot appealed.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted review to address the following question:
Where an employee suffers from a workplace injury fairly attributable to a non-employer third party, is the employee precluded by 77 P.S. § 481’s exclusive remedy provision from bringing a tort claim against the employer for affirmative conduct that impedes the employee’s ability to seek relief against the third party?1
Yes, according to the Court. In answering this question affirmatively and reversing the lower courts, it relied on plain language of the WCA, legislative intent, and public policy concerns.
The WCA exclusivity provision provides: “liability of an employer under this act shall be exclusive and in place of any and all other liability to such employees … entitled to damages in any action at law or otherwise on account of any injury or death…”2 Franczyk argued that her claim was not barred under this provision because she did not seek relief for her injury – the dog bite. Instead, she sought relief from the economic harm suffered when she lost the opportunity to file a third-party claim.
Although the WCA’s definition of “injury” clearly includes some specific exceptions3 – such as scenarios involving acts of third parties that are not considered “injuries” for the purposes of the WCA and in which, therefore, employee lawsuits against their employers would not be barred under the exclusivity provision – Fanczyk’s claim was not one of the limited exceptions. Thus, the Court determined that lawmakers intentionally excluded it from the WCA; “when a statute specifically excludes certain categories or classes from its reach, we will interpret the silence as to other categories or classes as intentional.”4 Additionally, the Court found that the Pennsylvania legislature intended for the WCA’s exclusivity provision to be broadly applied, even in cases of malfeasance.
Moreover, Franczyk’s asserted “injury” – her inability to file the third-part suit – was, according to the court, “intertwined inextricably with the workplace injury.”5 Allowing the case against The Home Depot and Franczyk’s supervisors to proceed would require an estimation of what a jury would have awarded if a suit against the dog owner had gone forward – basically requiring the employer to defend a personal injury case – which is exactly the kind of suit that the exclusivity provision intended to bar.
Finally, the Court pointed to the public policy implications of its decision. It acknowledged that Franczyk’s ability to recover is restricted by its holding but stressed the public’s interest in a system where employer exposure is limited while employees receive prompt and reasonable compensation for their injuries. Had the court ruled in Franczyk’s favor, the WCA’s exclusivity provision would have been substantially weakened. As explained by counsel for The Home Depot, J. Grant Stringham:
"If the Court had found in favor of the plaintiff 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 alleged that his or her employer somehow acted improperly in investigating a workplace injury and allegedly impeded the ability of an employee to recover against a third-party tortfeasor. Taking away the Act’s protection for employers would have opened the floodgates for employee lawsuits alleging negligent investigation of workplace accidents. I am pleased the Supreme Court’s decision refused to yield the well-reasoned and long-established statutory protections of the Act, to artful lawyering and pleading from the plaintiff's bar.”
1 Franczyk at n. 14.
2 77 P.S. § 481.
3 77 P.S. § 411.
4 Franczyk at 8.
5 Franczyk at 17.