Falls v. Union Drilling, Inc., No. 33907 (W. Va. 12/10/08)
Ruling: The West Virginia Supreme Court upheld the dismissal of the claimant's personal injury suit, finding that the deceased worker's accident occurred in the course of his employment. As a result, the employer was immune from personal liability under the Workers' Compensation Act.
What it means: In West Virginia, a worker or his representative may not sue the worker's employer or a coworker for wrongful death if the accident arose out of and in the course of employment unless he meets one of three statutory exceptions to immunity. The exceptions include the employer's defaulting in payments under the WCA or otherwise failing to comply with the act, and acting with deliberate intention to cause the employee's injury.
Summary: An employee of a drilling company was killed in a single-vehicle accident when his supervisor fell asleep at the wheel while they were driving home from the job site. The supervisor had worked at least a double shift, in addition to his regularly scheduled shifts prior to the accident. The mother of the deceased worker filed a wrongful death action in which she claimed that the employer negligently and recklessly required its employees to work excessive hours without adequate rest or sleep.
The West Virginia Supreme Court upheld a lower court's finding that the personal injury claims were barred because the WCA provided the sole remedy for the worker's death. The employees were injured while traveling on behalf of the employer or within the zone of employment under the "special circumstances" exemption to the coming and going rule. The accident therefore occurred in the course and scope of employment, entitling the employer to immunity under the WCA.
The decedent's mother argued that her claim was not barred because her son was killed after leaving the employer's premises after work. She contended that the coming and going rule applied, which removed the accident from the employment arena. However, she also argued that the supervisor's negligent conduct exposed the drilling company to liability through the common law doctrine of respondeat superior, as his sleep deprivation was directly related to the scope of his employment.
The court agreed that the supervisor's performance of additional work for the company after his shift ended increased the risk of harm. As a result of this finding, the journey came within the scope of employment, and thus entitled the employer and coworker to workers' compensation immunity.
February 2, 2009
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