May v. Melrose South Pyrotechnics | Workers Compensation Exclusivity | Employee versus Independent Contractor

In May, Hill v. Melrose South Pyrotechnics, (February 4, 2014), the Court of Appeals addressed the issue of whether workers were employees or independent contractors. In this case, several workers were injured during a fireworks display. They then sued the company that put on the display, alleging negligence and gross negligence. Although the opinion is not entirely clear, it appears that the defendant argued that the claims were barred by the exclusivity provisions of the workers compensation act. (I.e., employees who have claims under workers compensation laws generally cannot sue their employer, absent allegations of wilful conduct by the employer.)

The Court held that the evidence was conflicting as to whether the workers were employees or contractors. The actual facts are rather difficult to discern from the opinion. The workers had alleged that they were not employees. The defendant argued that it paid the "lead technician" ten percent of the revenues and he chose how to divide the money among the other workers. There was evidence that the defendant trained the workers. There was evidence that the workers were hired on a "job by job" basis, and that one of them was a part time employee. One of them was an electrician, and one had painted houses. The court concluded that the forecast of evidence was conflicting as to whether the workers were employees or contractors, and held that summary judgment for the defendant was improper.

The defendant also argued seemingly argued that the claims should have been dismissed regardless of how the workers were classified. It argued that if the workers were employees, they had not shown that the defendant's conduct was so egregious as to avoid the bar (exclusivity) of the workers compensation laws. It argued that if the workers were contractors, that the defendant was not liable under the "no liability rule" for contractors (presumably meaning that an entity is not liable for the negligence of its independent contractors). The court really did not address these issues, other than to state that the conflicting evidence as to the status of the workers as employees or contractors created an issue of fact, precluding summary judgment.

John Kirby has represented many parties in cases involving classifying workers as employees or independent contractors. This issue has ramifications as to whether the employer is liable for the torts of the workers, and whether workers compensation applies. It also affects issues such as taxation, and unemployment benefits.

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