When Does Employer Immunity Protect the Employee?
From the Desk of Kyle D. Riley: Washington’s workers’ compensation statute provides employers and coemployees immunity from lawsuit. But when does immunity apply to coemployees? Read on to find out.
Claims Pointer: In this case arising out of an injury that took place on company property, the Washington Supreme Court held that a coemployee must demonstrate he was performing work for the employer at the time of injury for employer immunity to apply. The case provides clarity as to when employer immunity applies to employee injuries caused by coemployees.
Entila v. Cook, No. 92581-0, Washington Supreme Court (January 12, 2016)
Gerald Cook (“Cook”) and Francisco Entila (“Entila”) were both employees of the Boeing Company (“Boeing”). One morning in February 2010, Cook finished work and walked to his vehicle in an employee parking lot. While driving his personal vehicle out of the lot and onto a Boeing access road, which was located on Boeing’s property and maintained by Boeing, he struck and injured Entila as he walked across the road. Entila received workers’ compensation benefits for his injuries and filed suit against Cook for negligence.
Cook moved for summary judgment, arguing that he was immune from the suit under the Industrial Insurance Act (“IIA”), Washington’s workers’ compensation statute. Cook asserted that because there was no issue of fact that he was acting in the course of employment, Boeing’s employer immunity shielded him from liability. The trial court granted his motion and dismissed the lawsuit. Entila appealed. On review, the Court of Appeals reversed, holding that Cook was not immune under the IIA because he did not establish that he was acting in both the scope and course of employment. Cook appealed.
On appeal, Cook argued that the IIA definition of “acting in the course of employment” included “time spent going to and from work on the jobsite.” Because he was driving from work on the jobsite, he was acting in the course of employment. Entila argued that for immunity to exist and bar the suit, Cook had to demonstrate that he was performing work for Boeing at the time of injury.
The Supreme Court explained that although the IIA definition of acting in the course of employment established whether a worker was eligible for benefits and employer immunity, it did not control third party immunity. Rather, a different statute provided that when an injured person brings a personal injury action, the defendant is not eligible for statutory immunity unless they are in the “same employ” as their coworker. Thus, the core issue was whether Cook and Entila were in the “same employ” at the time of injury.
Prior case law established that coemployees were not in the same employ and thus not entitled to immunity unless it was shown they were acting “in the scope and course of his or her employment.” The Court noted that the analysis focused on whether the third party defendant could establish that he was performing duties for his employer. Thus, in order to be shielded from liability, Cook would have to show he was doing work or acting at the direction of Boeing.
The Court explained that third party actions were preferred in order to allow the Department of Labor and Industries to recoup benefits paid to the worker. This is because the tortfeasor does not pay into the industrial insurance fund. Accordingly, the courts generally favor the right of the injured worker to pursue a claim against the tortfeasor. Additionally, the Court recognized that to apply the broad IIA definition of “acting in the course of employment” would allow defendants immunity simply because they were located on the jobsite. Immunity would therefore be available in most cases, and third party actions would be rare.
Because Cook had not demonstrated that he was doing work or acting at the direction of Boeing at the time of injury, the Court held that the case should not have been dismissed. The Court of Appeals was affirmed, and the case was remanded to the trial court.
View full opinion at: https://www.courts.wa.gov/opinions/pdf/925810.pdf
Case updates are intended to inform our clients and others about legal matters of current interest. They are not intended as legal advice. Readers should not act upon the information contained in this article without seeking professional counsel.
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