In the case of the death of a 14-year boy , the appellate court considered whether his death was in the course of his employment as determined by the New York Workers’ Compensation Board, or whether it was due to his employer’s criminal activity.
Exclusive remedy rule
In New York, when an employee is injured or killed during the course of their employment, Workers’ Compensation benefits are the victim’s exclusive remedy. That means that the victim and/or the victim’s family do not have the option of pursuing a personal injury claim against the employer. An exception to the exclusivity rule is where the employer engaged in deliberate acts that caused the victim’s injury.
In Smith v. Park, 14-year-old Alex K. Smith (the “decedent”) worked for the Park Family Farm. In July of 2015, the decedent was killed in an accident while operating a skid steer that was owned by the Park Family Farm. A skid steer is a piece of construction equipment. There were no witnesses to the accident.
After the decedent’s mother filed for worker’s compensation death benefits, the Workers’ Compensation Board determined that the death was accidental. It also found that the Park Family Farm illegally employed the decedent. The Workers’ Compensation Board ordered the Park Family Farm to pay the decedent’s mother an higher death benefit than would otherwise be due because the Park Family Farm had illegally employed the decedent.
In 2017, the decedent’s mother, the plaintiff, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the Park Family Farm. She sought damages on behalf of herself and on behalf of the decedent’s estate. She alleged that defendant Luke Park, one of the owners off the Park Family Farm, engaged in criminal conduct that was related to the decedent’s employment and that led to his death. In other words, she argued that the exception to the exclusivity rule should apply.
The trial court granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment motion and dismissed the plaintiff’s case. It found that that because the decedent was injured in an accident at work, the plaintiff’s was only entitled to workers’ compensation benefits. N.Y. Workers’ Comp. Law § 11. The plaintiff appealed.
Appellate Court’s decision
The appellate court upheld the trial court’s decision. It found that the exclusivity rule did apply. It noted that the defendant’s intentional actions did not lead to the decedent’s death. While the defendant did break several laws including willful failure to pay unemployment insurance contributions in violation of N.Y. Labor Law § 633, endangering the welfare of a child in violation of N.Y. Penal Law § 260.10, and prohibited employment of a minor in violation of N.Y. Labor Law § 133, evidence produced at trial showed that the defendant was unaware that the decedent had used the skid steer. Eve though the defendant might have been negligent in supervising the decedent, there was no evidence that the defendant acted out of a “willful intent to harm” decedent. In order for the exception to exclusivity to apply, there must be a finding that the employer acted out of a “willful intent to harm” the injured employee. In fact, the record showed that the defendant treated the decedent as a son and tried to protect him from the dangerous aspects of far work.
Limitations of workers’ compensation
Worker’s compensation are designed to benefit employers by minimizing the amount of liability they have when employees are injured at work. By paying for workers’ compensation insurance, they protect themselves from lawsuits by injured workers and their families based on injuries sustained in the course of employment. Employees, on the other hand, are limited in the amount of compensation that they can receive. They have the right to receive compensation for medical expenses related to the injury as well as professional rehab, if necessary. They are also entitled to receive lost income. Because of the limitations on the compensation injured victims can receive, plaintiffs such as in Smith v. Par, seek a remedy outside of what workers’ compensation provides.