Normally when an employee gets injured at work and her employer is at fault, the
employee can only recover workers’ compensation benefits – meaning coverage for her medical bills and roughly two thirds of the employee’s lost wages. By Pennsylvania statute, 77 P.S. §481(a) recovery of workers’ compensation benefits by an employee is the exclusive remedy she has against her employer unless her claim meets one of the limited exceptions to this rule. One of these exceptions, listed under 77 P.S. §411(1), is an employee can bring a claim against her employer if a co-employee or the employer itself injures the employee because of a personal dispute. This is also known as the “personal animus” exception. Why? When an employee gets attacked or harmed for personal reasons, Pennsylvania courts do not see this as an injury related to the employee’s work. Therefore the employee’s remedies are not restricted to Pennsylvania’s Workers’ Compensation Act and a separate lawsuit can be filed directly against her employer. For example, see Mike v. Aliquippa, 421 A.2d 251 (Pa 1980).
Even if the employee applies for and receives workers’ compensation followed by a personal attack, that employee can still bring a claim against her employer as long as there are no findings by a workers’ compensation judge that the injuries were work related. In this situation, the employer gets a credit for whatever workers’ compensation benefits it paid. It then receives a percentage of those payments back if the employee obtains a verdict or settlement from the employer.
This was the situation the Thistle Firm faced when it claimed one of its clients was attacked by a co-employee due to both a long-standing feud with the client, and the client’s sexuality. The Thistle Firm argued the co-employee had a history of violence and other issues which should have lead to his firing before the co-employee attacked the client. The Thistle Firm claimed this history included attacking another employee, and sexually harassing another – harassment which the client reported to his superiors. The Firm also pointed to evidence that the co-employee regularly made derogatory comments about the client’s sexuality. This conflict came to a head when the client was asked by his employer to have a meeting with the co-employee about his work performance. During the meeting the co-employee attacked the client, severely beating the client until he blacked out. The co-employee had already accepted a job with another company before the meeting. Therefore the Thistle Firm claimed the co-employee showed up to the meeting just to attack the client.
In the time after the attack, the client’s employer voluntarily started paying him workers’ compensation benefits. The employer later entered into a Compromise and Release Agreement – which is an agreement that resolves any future Workers’ Compensation payments for a lump sum – with the client. The employer put a subrogation clause in this agreement – i.e. a clause that said should the client obtain a settlement or verdict in a lawsuit against it, the employer had a right to be paid back a percentage of the workers’ compensation benefits the client received out of that settlement or verdict. This Agreement was later approved by a Workers’ Compensation Judge.
During the client’s claim against the employer, the employer attempted to get the case against it dismissed under Pennsylvania’s Workers’ Compensation Act. The employer argued the client had received workers’ compensation benefits and this was the client’s only remedy under Pennsylvania law. The employer also argued the client’s settlement of his Comp benefits was approved by a workers’ compensation judge, precluding any personal injury claim the client may have against the employer.
The Thistle Firm successfully argued that the court should not dismiss its client’s claim, and instead allow the client to proceed to trial. The Thistle Firm showed the client’s claim met the personal animus exception to Pennsylvania’s Workers’ Compensation Act. Besides the derogatory comments the co-employee made about the client’s sexuality, the Firm pointed to the fact that their dispute had been going on for a long time. The longer there is a feud between two co-employees, the more likely it is about personal reasons and less it is about work.
The Thistle Firm also pointed to the Subrogation Clause in the Compromise and Release Agreement to show that the employer was aware the client’s claim met the personal animus exception. The Firm was able to argue that there was no need to put this clause in the Agreement if the employer believed the client could not bring a personal injury action against it. Instead the employer persuaded the client to resolve any future Workers’ Compensation issues by agreeing the client had a right to bring a personal injury lawsuit against it. Now that any potential Workers’ Compensation claims were resolved, the Firm argued the employer was trying to go back on its agreement and get the client’s personal injury claim dismissed.
Finally, the Thistle Firm was able to argue that the Workers’ Compensation Judge’s approval of the Compromise and Release Agreement did not bar the client from suing his employer. Pennsylvania’s highest court in Nieves v. Arkesh, 664 A.2d 532 (Pa. 1995) has previously ruled that the approval of a Compromise and Release Agreement by a Workers’ Compensation Judge, without getting into whether the injuries are work related, is not a binding ruling that an employee’s injuries are work related.
The Thistle Firm was able to obtain a settlement for its client after defeating the employer’s motion for summary judgment. If you have questions about whether you can bring a personal injury claim against your employer for an injury on the job, the attorneys at the Thistle Firm are happy to answer them for you.