BWG May 2011 Lawyer Alert: Supreme Judicial Court Denies Immunity to General Contractor

Ruling Confirms Rights of Injured Workers to Bring Third Party Claims Against General Contractor after Receiving Workers' Compensation Insurance
 
The Supreme Judicial Court today affirmed the right of an employee of an uninsured subcontractor to bring third party claims against the general contractor, even if the general contractor has made workers' compensation payments pursuant to G.L. c. 152, § 18. The case was an important victory for injured workers.

The case arose from a construction accident on a residential construction site. An explosion at the site killed one worker and seriously injured his son, another worker at the site. Both men were employed by Great Green Barrier Co. Great Green did not have workers' compensation insurance. As a result, pursuant to G.L. c. 152, § 18, the general contractor, Henry C. Becker Custom Building Ltd., was liable for the workers' compensation obligations. This obligation arises under the policy in Massachusetts that a general contractor is responsible to hire only subcontractors which have workers' compensation insurance available for their employees.

The defendant argued that the statutory scheme prevented the plaintiffs from making third party claims once they had accepted lump sum workers' compensation settlements pursuant to G.L. c. 152, § 23, which ordinarily bars workers from maintaining negligence claims against their employers if they have accepted workers' compensation benefits. While this argument had persuaded the trial court, which granted summary judgment for the defendant, the ruling had been overturned by the Appeals Court. Wentworth v. Henry C. Becker Custom Bldg. Ltd, 76 Mass.App.Ct. 507 (2010). The SJC granted further appellate review.

The SJC made short work of the defendant's arguments: "We need not belabor the reasons we are unpersuaded. It suffices to say that the [defendant's] arguments ignore the plain language of the relevant statutory provisions..."  The court found no reason to reward the general contractor for violating the law by either willfully or negligently hiring an uninsured contractor. 

"Our interpretation instead gives a general contractor strong incentive to retain subcontractors who have workers' compensation insurance because  it otherwise has to pay the workers' compensation benefits and is liable for any common-law damages; it implements the Legislature's intention fully to protect workers by allowing recovery from third parties, including general contractors who are not the injured workers' direct employer; and it gives meaning to the statute's intent that workers' compensation carriers be reimbursed by liable third parties."

The matter was remanded to the Superior Court for further proceedings.

The case is Wentworth v. Henry C. Becker Custom Building Ltd., SJC-10806 (May 23, 2011).

Practice Pointers
This is an important victory for Massachusetts workers. Plaintiffs' counsel can now be assured that their clients have the right to pursue negligent general contractors, even if workers' compensation payments have been made by them.

If you are representing a general contractor, then you should remind them of their obligation to hire subcontractors who can demonstrate that they have workers' compensation insurance.

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