Tenn. Exclusive Remedy Bars Sales Rep’s Tort Claim

30 Apr, 2024 Frank Ferreri


Gallatin, TN (WorkersCompensation.com) -- It's a bedrock principle of the "exclusive remedy" rule that the "Grand Bargain" provides that an employee injured on the job must seek benefits through the workers' compensation system rather than suing the employer under a tort theory.

However, a case like Coblentz v. Tractor Supply Company, No. M2023-00249-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. 04/26/24) tests the boundaries of that rule when the injury at issue involves a worker from another employer conducting business that, arguably, is on the allegedly covered employer's behalf.

A sales representative for a hardware company was injured while visiting a store that the company did business with when a 12-foot steel barn door fell out of a display on struck him on the head.

The representative and his wife brought a personal injury action against the store, alleging that the store was negligent in failing to warn the representative about the danger and inspect the area where he was injured.

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The store raised an exclusive remedy defense, arguing that it was a statutory employer.

The trial court agreed with the store and granted its motion for summary judgment, prompting the representative to appeal, alleging that the store was not, as the trial court determined, a "principal contractor" under Tennessee law and so was not immune from tort liability.

Under Tennessee's "statutory employer rule," a principal contractor is secondarily liable for workers' compensation and thus pays workers' compensation if the immediate employer cannot do so. In exchange for its exposure to liability under the Workers' Compensation Act, a Tennessee principal contractor gains immunity from tort liability, even if the statutory employer never had to pay workers' compensation benefits to the worker.

Thus, the appellate court upheld the trial court's decision, finding that the store met the statutory employer rule on the basis that the work being performed by the representative was part of the regular business of the store and was the same type of work usually performed by the store's employees.

In particular, the representative was injured when he was engaged upon the subject matter of the contract between the company and the store since he was checking inventory of the product, servicing the company's display and aisle in the store, and cleaning and straightening the company's display in the store. The work performed by the representative was continuous in nature and typical of work performed by store employees: inspecting displays, keeping them stocked, and making sure they were organized and clean.

The appellate court affirmed the trial court's ruling, holding that state workers' compensation law provided the representative's exclusive remedy.

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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. Frank encourages everyone to consider helping out the Kind Souls Foundation and Kids' Chance of America.

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