An injured worker who collects workers’ compensation in Rhode Island cannot sue his employer in Massachusetts, according to a ruling by the Massachusetts Supreme Court. Both states bar any other recovery once an injured worker has received a payment.
In the same ruling, the court found that under Massachusetts law a homeowner who hires a firm for the purpose of remedying an obvious hazardous condition on her property does not owe the same duty of care to the contractor as she might to another person lawfully on her property.
In 2016, Ryan Ward suffered serious injuries to both his legs when the wall of a dilapidated and partially collapsed garage fell on him. The standalone garage was on a residential property located in Fall River, Massachusetts owned by Catherine Schnurr. Schnurr hired Julio Santana’s Rhode Island firm, Go Green Services, LLC, to demolish and remove the garage. Ward worked for Go Green.
Before he was injured, Ward called his boss, Santana, and explained that he did not believe he could take down the structure safely in its then-present condition, and that additional equipment would be needed. Santana told the plaintiff that the job needed to be done, and said that he would try to get to the location as soon as he could.
Ward walked around the garage and reached for a protruding piece of the structure that he believed he could move freely. He pushed it back toward the inside of the garage. The garage then collapsed on top of him, pinning his legs underneath. He sustained bilateral leg fractures, which required surgery.
Ward, a Rhode Island resident, applied for workers’ compensation benefits with the Rhode Island Workers’ Compensation Court. Go Green, through its insurer, at first denied liability, claiming that Ward was an independent contractor and thus not entitled to workers’ compensation. A workers’ compensation judge agreed and denied his claim. Ward then sought a trial but before the case went to trial the parties settled for a lump-sum payment of $19,000. Ward signed a statement releasing Go Green and the insurer. The release did not expressly cover Santana, or any of the officers or employees of Go Green.
After seeking workers’ compensation benefits from Go Green in Rhode Island, Ward brought a negligence action in the Superior Court in Massachusetts against Santana individually and against Schnurr, the Massachusetts property owner.
In his defense, Go Green’s Santana argued that Rhode Island and Massachusetts workers’ compensation laws, as well as the settlement release that the plaintiff signed, barred Ward’s tort claim, and that, in any event, Santana could not be held liable for the Ward’s injuries because he did not owe any duty to him.
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