Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Employee? Not Employee?

The employment relationship is often defined by timing, and sometimes influenced by the potential dispute resolution forum. A recent Pennsylvania case is illustrative.

Paul Marazas worked for Vitas Healthcare Corp. in Pennsylvania.

After spending a weekend on call, Marazas reported to work and received his daily itinerary. His assigned route for the day included stops in New Jersey, Delaware and Pennsylvania, and was likely to take him until midnight to complete.

Marazas went to his manager's office and asked to have his schedule adjusted because he was still tired after his weekend on call. When his manager refused his request, Marazas stated that he could not continue to work under such conditions and quit.

His manager then told him that he needed to remove his personal belongings from the Vitas truck. Marazas did so, accompanied by his manager. After he had retrieved his effects and began walking back to the Vitas warehouse, Marazas tripped over a pallet jack.

His manager was with him at the time of his accident and saw him fall. She then walked with Marazas to his car, and he drove away.

A few days later, Marazas called Vitas and requested a referral to physician for treatment of his injuries from his fall. Vitas informed him that it only made referrals for its active employees.
Ouch - didn't see that pallet jack on my way out...
Marazas later filed a civil suit against Vitas in the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas, seeking damages for his injuries. He asserted that he had been a business invitee of Vitas at the time of his accident. Vitas countered that he was an employee and in the course of his employment when he fell.

Marazas then withdrew his civil suit and filed a workers' compensation claim petition for his injuries.

A workers' compensation judge found Marazas and his doctors to be credible, and she awarded Marazas benefits from Nov. 7, 2005 through July 9, 2008.

Vitas appealed, arguing that since Marazas had admittedly quit before he fell the accident was outside the scope of the workers' compensation scheme.

The Workers Compensation Appeal Board agreed and vacated the WCJ's award.

On remand, the WCJ again found Marazas had been within the scope of his employment when he fell because Marazas was furthering the interests of his employer at the time of his accident since the retrieval of his personal belongings that his manager had instructed him to perform was a task at the request of the employer.

The judge once more issued Marazas an award of benefits, and Vitas again appealed. The WCAB once again sided with Vitas, finding Marazas' injuries were not compensable.

On appeal to the Commonwealth Court, however, Vitas lost.

The Court said that while it was undisputed that Marazas had announced his decision to end his employment before his accident, this didn't mean that the scope of his employment had ended.

The WCJ had found Marazas was acting pursuant to his manager's directive in retrieving his belongings from the company truck, and he was under his manager's supervision while doing so, ergo Marazas was still under his employer's control when his accident occurred.

Still the case leaves a bad taste the employer first sought to avoid work comp liability until it realized that civil liability could be worse, and then tries again to deny work comp liability.

Seems there was some bad blood between employee and employer.

And though the Court said that judicial estoppel, which means that a party to a case can not in a different jurisdiction argue the opposite, is a bar only if the party has persuaded a judge that the prior position was correct. Since Vitas had obtained no adjudication that Marazas was its employee before Marazas withdrew his civil suit, nothing was stopping Vitas from changing its argument in defense of the workers' compensation claim.

Commentators on the opinion disagreed with the Court's reasoning on estoppel, but the result is the same: employee and employer don't have a good relationship and it spills into a dispute resolution mechanism - in this case both civil and work comp forums.

And while work comp for most employers gets distasteful, potential civil liability tastes worse.

The case is Marazas v. WCAB (Vitas Healthcare), No. 337 C.D. 2014.

1 comment:

  1. This type of issues have definitively affected the home care laws. With so many new laws and requirements on what home care laws are supposed to do. Very interesting information