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Pennsylvania Supreme Court Allows Waivers for Future Negligence by Third Parties

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Bowman v. Sunoco, a very interesting decision on tort liability waivers, was rendered by a divided Pennsylvania Supreme Court on April 25.

Here's the factual backdrop. P signs on as a security guard for Acme, a firm that sends guards to protect the operations of clients. P's contract with Acme specifies that P is an employee of Acme, not of the client firms where P may work on any individual day. In case of injury, P will be able to benefit from the Workers' Compensation policy paid for (pursuant to its legal obligation) by Acme.

Now, additional recovery by injured workers has been the bane of many a liability insurer. Perhaps 25% of all products liability suits are filed by workers injured on the job. The latter collect their workers' compensation benefits, cannot sue their employers (that is the statutory quid pro quo for workers' comp), but then turn around and sue the manufacturer of the tool that injured them, on the grounds that said tool was imperfect ("defective") in some way.

In the instant case, the additional suit would not be against a product manufacturer, but against the client, for some alleged negligence. Obviously clients might be disgruntled to be sued in such instances. So Acme added a clause to its employment contract, according to which P waived

"any and all rights I may have to:

-make a claim, or
-commence a lawsuit, or
-recover damages or losses

from or against any customer (and the employees of any customer) of [Acme] to which I may be assigned, arising from or related to injuries which are covered under the Workers' Compensation statutes."

P was injured while guarding a Sunoco refinery, and sued Sunoco for negligence after collecting his workers' compensation benefits from Acme. Sunoco invoked P's contract with Acme, and obtained summary judgment at trial and in the intermediate appellate court. P appealed, and challenged the waiver clause on several grounds, most importantly on the grounds that it was prohibited by Pennsylvania public policy. For § 204(a) of the Pennsylvania Workers' Compensation Act reads in pertinent part as follows:

(a) No agreement, composition, or release of damages made before the
date of any injury shall be valid or shall bar a claim for damages resulting
therefrom; and any such agreement is declared to be against the public
policy of this Commonwealth.

But a majority of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court disagreed with P's statement that the plain meaning of § 204(a) invalidated the waiver. The court pointed out that the article read in its entirety applied clearly only to waivers of the employer's liability, not to waivers of liability to third parties. The court added that waivers of liability for future negligence are in principle possible in Pennsylvania (unlike many other states). The court cited to friendly case-law in two other jurisdictions:

"As the Appeals Court of Massachusetts found in Horner v. Boston Edison Company, 695 N.E.2d 1093 (Mass. App. Ct. 1998), the disclaimer here "extinguishes only the employee's right to recover additional amounts as a result of a work-related injury for which the employee has already received workers' compensation benefits." Id., at 1095. Similarly, the Supreme Court of Arkansas found, with facts nearly identical to the present case, a similar disclaimer did not violate public policy because it did not indicate the employer was "attempting to escape liability entirely, but [was] instead, attempting to shield its clients from separate tort liability for those injuries that are covered by workers' compensation ...." Edgin v. Entergy Operations, Inc., 961 S.W.2d 724, 727 (Ark. 1998)."

The tantalizing question is whether a Pennsylvania employer could similarly contract with its employees to waive liability claims against too manufacturers for workplace injuries. It's hard to see why the same rationale would not obtain. Tool manufacturers would presumably give employers a better deal on tool sales in consideration for such a waiver, were it enforceable.....

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Isaac Gorodetski
Project Manager,
Center for Legal Policy at the
Manhattan Institute
igorodetski@manhattan-institute.org

Katherine Lazarski
Press Officer,
Manhattan Institute
klazarski@manhattan-institute.org

 

Published by the Manhattan Institute

The Manhattan Insitute's Center for Legal Policy.