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After Dog Bite at Work, Exclusivity Leashes Home Depot Employees Tort Claims

24 Apr, 2023 Frank Ferreri

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Harrisburg, PA (WorkersCompensation.com) -- It's hard to pass up a good "dog bites worker" story, but does workers' compensation law in Pennsylvania keep a worker who has on the job been bitten by a dog from going for more than just workers' compensation benefits.

In Franczyk v. Home Depot, Inc., 2023 WL 2992700 (Pa. 04/19/23), the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that a Home Depot worker couldn't sue after she got bit by a dog and the store let two canines (and their owners) leave the scene without further questioning.

While on the job, a Home Depot worker was bitten by a customer's dog. The worker promptly reported the bit to her supervisors. While Home Depot investigated, worker was barred from contacting or interacting with the dog owner or any witnesses.

While the worker's supervisors located and question two individuals who, separately, had brought dogs into the store, they allowed all of them to leave the store without taking contact infromation.

Later, the worker was diagnosed with cubital tunnel syndrome, which required surgery. She claimed and received workers' compensation benefits.

The worker then sued Home Depot, asserting that the big box home improvement retailer failed to investigate the incident sufficiently and negligently allowed the dog owner and witnesses to leave without obtaining identifying information. According to the worker, the store's acts and omissions denied her the opportunity to file a third-party suit against the dog owner.

Home Depot argued that because the worker's injury occurred during the course of her employment, state law prevented her suing. The trial court disagreed, and, citing a Florida case, found that there was a "genuine question" as to whether the failure to obtain information from the dog owners rose to the level of negligence.

The appeals court upheld that decision, prompting Home Depot to appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

The exclusivity provision in Pennsylvania immunizes employer's and their insurer's against responsibility in a third party action. According to the law, while an employee may bring a lawsuit against a third party (like the dog's owner), but the employer or its carrier won't face liability.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court explained that this principle of law curbed the worker's case.

"To the extent that [the worker's] allegedly implied third-party claim seeks to recover for her physical injuries as such, the Act clearly precludes [Home Depot's] liability."

While many states have an exception to exclusivity when wrongful conduct is involved, that's not the case in Pennsylvania. In reaching its decision in Home Depot's favor, the court looked to three precedent cases for the following principles:

Poyser v. Newman & Co. 522 A.2d 548 (Pa. 1987). That the legislature had excluded certain wrongful third-party conduct from the exclusivity provision made clear that it "had the issue of intentional harm in mind." The legislature chose not to extend protections associated with such harm to the context of any employer that itself engaged in wrongful conduct.

Kuney v. PMA Insurance Co., 578 A.2d 1285 (Pa. 1990). The employee's claim was that the insurance company wrongfully delayed his receipt of compensation benefits, which was "clearly a matter pertaining to a workers' compensation claim and must therefore be adjudicated within the framework of the statute."

Curtis v. Simpson Chevrolet, 384 F. Supp. 1062 (E.D. Pa. 1972). The court explained that the plain wording of Pennsylvania's workers' compensation law provides subrogation for employers, who are to be repaid from a third-party recovery, even if they share responsibility with the third party for the injury.

Although the worker cited a case, Martin v. Lancaster Battery Co., Inc., 606 A.2d 444 (Pa. 1992), in which the court ruled in favor of a workers who were exposed to lead on the job. However, the court in that case drew a distinction between the original workplace injury and the aggravation that the employee experienced. Because the aggravation was an injury into itself, the court found a "truly separable injury" that wasn't present in the Home Depot worker's situation.

"The asserted injury ... is 'intertwined' inextricably with the workplace injury," the court explained.

Applying the "plain language" of Pennsylvania's workers' compensation law, the court reversed the lower decisions and ruled in Home Depot's favor.

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    About The Author

    • Frank Ferreri

      Frank Ferreri, M.A., J.D. covers workers' compensation legal issues. He has published books, articles, and other material on multiple areas of employment, insurance, and disability law. Frank received his master's degree from the University of South Florida and juris doctor from the University of Florida Levin College of Law.

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