Exclusive Remedy Under Georgia's WCA Held to Protect Members, Partners and Supervisors
In Rogers v. HHRM Self-Perform, LLC, 880 S.E.2d 351 (Ga. Ct. App. 2022), the estate of a worker, who had sustained fatal injuries at the worksite while moving a metal shoring tower, brought a negligence action against the principal contractor for a project on which the worker's employer performed construction work: Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The direct employer of the decedent worked for subcontractors, one of which was a limited liability company (LLC) whose sole member was the principal contractor, members or partners of the principal contractor, and individuals employed on the construction project in safety or supervisory roles. The insurer that had paid medical and indemnity benefits on the employee’s worker's compensation claim, intervened as a defendant. The trial court granted defendants' motions for summary judgment and judgment on the pleadings. The estate appealed and the court of appeals affirmed.
The court of appeals held that the Georgia Workers' Compensation Act (“Act”) precluded negligence claims against members of the principal contractor if the principal contractor was a joint venture. When Appellant filed suit, she had named the individual members of the joint venture, but not the joint venture itself. Appellant argued that because the individual venturers cannot be considered “contractors” who are secondarily liable for workers’ compensation benefits, they likewise do not enjoy the same tort immunity as contractors. However, the court of appeals found that in cases involving claims by employees against employers, an employee engaged in the work of the joint venture is an employee of each of the joint venturers, and therefore workers’ compensation laws are the exclusive remedy of the employees against those individual partners or joint venturers. Further, applying the general laws of partnership and agency to joint venturers, the court of appeals concluded that under the facts presented the individual members shared in the obligation to provide workers’ compensation benefits, and thus shared in the immunity afforded by the Act's exclusive remedy provision.
The court of appeals also held that the Act precluded negligence claims against partners if the principal contractor was a partnership. Appellant argued, in the alternative, that a question of fact remains as to whether the joint venture is instead a partnership, and thus whether tort immunity would be conferred upon the legally existing partnership itself, rather than upon the individual members of the partnership. However, the court of appeals found that as to employees of a partnership, the classification of the entity as a joint venture or partnership has no bearing on the employee's entitlement to workers’ compensation benefits, so long as the employee was engaged in the joint venture or partnership's business at the time of his injury. Thus, under the facts of this case, where the allegations of the complaint disclosed that the worker was engaged in the business of the joint venture at the time he was injured, the court of appeals found the trial court correctly ruled that the distinction between a partnership and a joint venture is of no consequence.
Next, the court of appeals held that the exclusive-remedy provision of the Act applied to the defendant safety officers. Appellant argued that the safety officers made “affirmative decisions” beyond the scope of their employer's non-delegable duty. Appellant pointed to their failure to address ongoing safety concerns pertaining to job site practices, among other things. However, the court of appeals found that such acts of nonfeasance were not directed at the injured worked, nor do they constitute the sort of affirmative conduct that would subject them to liability.
Finally, the court of appeals found the exclusive-remedy provision of the Act applied to the supervisors. Appellant argued that there remain issues of fact as to the identity of these defendants’ actual employer. However, the court of appeals found that it did not matter who their employer was because they were still entitled to summary judgment as there is no evidence that the supervisors assumed a general duty of care toward the injured worker by engaging in activities wholly separate from the statutory employer-employee relationship. To the contrary, all of the activities they undertook pertaining to safety measures and shoring maneuvering — and all of Appellant's allegations of negligence — arose from the non-delegable duty their employer owed to the employees and arose from their capacities as the employer's representatives. Therefore, the court of appeals declined to hold that these defendants’ acts of creating and implementing general construction practices fall within the narrow “affirmative act[s]” exception to a supervisory employee's immunity carved out by our Supreme Court.