Causation finding in workers' comp case has no impact on third-party suit
Case name: Gudmundson v. Del Ozone, et al., No. 20080537 (Utah 05/14/10).
Ruling: The Utah Supreme Court reversed a lower court's dismissal of the employee's personal injury suit against several defendants based on principles of collateral estoppel. A finding by the Utah Labor Commission that there was no causal link between the employee's condition and her employment did not bar the employee from establishing that an ozone generator had a design defect.
What it means: While workers' compensation adjudications may be given preclusive effect in some instances, the Utah Supreme Court declined to allow the third-party defendants to use the workers' compensation finding on the issue of causation to block the employee from relitigating that issue in her personal injury suit.
Summary: A laundry supervisor at the Utah State Prison complained of a headache the day after a new ozone generator started operating. Various tests were performed and she was eventually diagnosed with a Chiari I Malformation, a condition that required surgery on her brain stem. A workers' compensation administrative law judge denied the supervisor's claim, concluding that the medical evidence did not establish the necessary causal relationship.
When the supervisor sued various defendants for negligent installation, strict liability based on a defective product, and other claims, a lower court determined that she was collaterally estopped from challenging the ALJ's causation finding. The Utah Supreme Court reversed, finding that the supervisor was not collaterally estopped from relitigating causation. She provided sufficient evidence that the generator had a design defect to allow her suit to proceed.
The court explained that the Utah workers' compensation scheme "represents a compromise between employee and employer." This compromise, the court said, does not affect the employee's right to sue negligent third parties. If workers' compensation adjudications were given preclusive effect in third-party suits, injured workers would face "a vexing dilemma: either elect the more simple and immediate relief afforded by workers' compensation or the more complex but potentially more lucrative civil litigation process."The court concluded that the Utah Workers' Compensation Act does not require an employee to make such a choice.
Moreover, because the third-party defendants were not part of the claimant's workers' compensation case, her subsequent lawsuit against them "was neither a waste of judicial resources nor an attempt to harass the defendants through vexatious litigation."
Read more at the WorkersComp Forum homepage.
July 22, 2010
Copyright 2010© LRP Publications