Georgia Supreme Court busts tie in Court of Appeals case

The Georgia Supreme Court recently weighed in on a tied Court of Appeals workers’ compensation case, and their findings could be a game-changer.

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In Smith v. Ellis, a pair of co-workers for a construction company made arrangements to meet during their workday. They worked at different sites, but planned the meeting so that Ellis could borrow a tool from Smith and so that Ellis could shoot his new AR-15 rifle. The meeting took place in an undeveloped field near where Smith was working.

While Smith organized his work tools beside his truck, Ellis began firing the weapon. The rifle jammed and when trying to clear the jammed cartridge, Ellis accidentally shot Smith in the thigh.

Both employees were fired, and Smith filed a workers’ comp claim against his employer, who denied the claim. Eventually Smith and his former employer settled the claim on a ‘no-liability’ basis. After that, Smith filed a personal injury lawsuit against Ellis, citing negligent operation of the rifle. Ellis moved to have the case dismissed based on the fact that Smith’s claim was barred by the exclusive remedy provision of the Workers’ Compensation Act.

In case you don’t know what ‘exclusive remedy’ is, it’s the practice of limiting a plaintiff to the workers’ compensation system as the sole remedy for damages where work-related injuries or deaths are concerned. Exclusive remedy is in place to prevent lawsuits against employers and co-workers in circumstances where an on-the-job injury occurs, whether there is negligence or not. It’s also there to make sure that an injured worker doesn’t get to ‘double dip’ for his injuries.

In trying to comply with the exclusive remedy provision, the trial court dismissed Smith’s case; Smith then appealed to the Georgia Court of Appeals, which ended up being split 6-6. That caused the case to be sent to the Georgia Supreme Court for a decision.

In the first of the two issues to be decided, the court needed to decide whether or not the exclusive remedy provision “protects an employee tort-feasor when the tort is committed outside the course of the tort-feasor’s employment.” They answered this negatively after examining the issue and how other states have decided it. Their reasoning was that Ellis was not acting as a fellow employee when he shot Smith.

By this decision, the court effectively decided the second issue in front of them:  whether or not the case was handled correctly by the trial court, and should it have been dismissed. The trial court didn’t ask the important question of whether or not Ellis was acting as an employee at the time of the shooting. Had they posed this question, then the case should not have been dismissed.

The reason that this is an important case with bearing on future of Georgia workers’ compensation cases is that it could enable double recovery (although it won’t be a large recovery on the workers’ comp part if the coworker is acting outside the scope of his employment) when a co-employee is responsible for, or contributes to, an injury (if the coworker is acting outside of the scope of his employment).  While the fact that there was a “no  liability” settlement for the workers’ comp case doesn’t automatically mean the injured claimant can sue his coworker (in fact, case law points to the opposite conclusion), the court in the personal injury claim should examine whether or not the coworker who causes an injury was acting in his employment or not–it’s a fact question that should survive a motion for summary judgment.

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