Can I sue My Employer for Negligence?
This might be considered a trick question, but it is not. Most Pennsylvania workers know that they are protected by the Worker’s Compensation Act and expect to receive workers’ compensation benefits if injured on the job. However, a claim for workers’ compensation does not involve negligence.
This is part of the grand bargain underlying the Worker’s Compensation Act—the employee is entitled to receive benefits without proving fault, in exchange for limiting the employer’s liability to lost wages and medical care. The employer is not exposed to liability for pain, suffering, and inconvenience. This limited exposure also applies to injuries caused by coworkers. A worker cannot sue a coworker even if negligence was involved.
It is possible to bring lawsuits against parties other than the employer whose negligence caused an accident. For example, if the work injury was the result of a car accident with another person. This is a claim against someone other than the employer, and the employer’s workers’ compensation immunity is still honored.
Despite the broad limitations imposed by employer’s workers’ compensation immunity, there is one category of cases in which an employee may bring a lawsuit in negligence against the employer. This exception is known as the “dual capacity” doctrine. An employer normally shielded from liability by the exclusive remedy may become liable to his own employee if he occupies, in addition to his capacity as employer, a second capacity that confers on him obligations independent of those imposed upon him as an employer. Callendar v. Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company, 564 A.2d 180 (Pa. Super. 1989).
The dual capacity doctrine was successfully employed in the case of Tatrai v. Presbyterian University Hospital, 439 A.2d 1162 (Pa. 1982). A hospital employee became ill while at work. She was taken to the emergency room of the same hospital. While in the emergency room, she was injured as the result of the negligence of the hospital. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court reasoned that the employee was in the same position as any other member of the public receiving medical treatment because the emergency room was open to the general public. The Court held that the hospital owed the employee the same duty it owed the general members of the public who came to the hospital room for emergency care. The hospital was not immune under the Worker’s Compensation Act from suit for the injuries the employee sustained in its own emergency room.
Although the dual capacity doctrine was used successfully in the Tatrai case, this is the exception. In Neidert v. Charlie, 143 A.3d 384 (Pa. Super. 2016), the injured employee attempted to use the fact that the employer was also the landlord for the building in which he was injured to convince the Court that the employer had a dual capacity. The court declined to accept this argument. The employee was actually injured during the course and scope of his employment. Because it was impossible to distinguish where one role started and the other ended, the employee could not “sue” the employer.
There are certain circumstances in which a negligence case can be brought against an employer, but they are very limited. It is important to speak to an experienced attorney who can navigate these complex rules of liability.