New York City, New York (NewYorkInjuryNews.com) — The lawyers of Sullivan Papain Block McGrath & Cannavo, P.C. succeeded in obtaining the reinstatement of a suit they brought on behalf of William Bautista, a 43-year-old maintenance man. In doing so, the firm earned an important victory for workers with respect to the doctrine of “special employment.” However, in order to explain what that doctrine is and why the ruling was significant, some background is needed.
In most instances, when a person is negligently injured by someone else, the injured person can sue that someone else for damages. Those damages would include fair compensation for the injured person’s accident-related medical expenses and economic losses (including lost income). Recovery would also include fair compensation for the physical pain and emotional suffering caused by the injuries.
However, the rules are different, and more complicated, if the injured person sustained the injury during the course of his or her employment. In New York, when an employee is injured during the scope of his or her employment, the employee can obtain workers’ compensation. That’s both good and bad for the employee. The good part is that the injured employee does not have to prove that the employer (or anyone else) was at fault in order to obtain workers’ compensation benefits. It is enough that the employee was injured “on the job.”
The bad part is that workers’ compensation benefits do not provide anything like what the worker could recover in a lawsuit. Workers’ Compensation benefits cover the worker’s accident-related medical expenses and generally provide a portion of the worker’s lost income, but provide nothing at all for the workers’ physical pain and emotional suffering.
The other bad part is that the injured employee gives up the right to sue his or her employer for ordinary fault-based damages. In essence the Workers’ Compensation Law provides a trade-off: the worker cannot sue his or her employer for full, fault-based compensation, but the worker is guaranteed partial compensation whether or not the employer was actually to blame for the injury.
One more step and we’ll get to what “special employment” is all about. Although the worker cannot sue his or her employer for employment-related injuries, the employer can still sue so-called third persons for causing the injury. For example, if the worker is involved in a motor vehicle collision while plaintiff is “on the job,” the worker can still sue the driver who caused the accident if that driver is not in the same employ.
This leads us — finally!! — to the concept of “special employment” and the importance of Sullivan Papain’s recent victory. Recently, in cases in which the worker was employed by one corporation (the so-called “general employer”) but was injured by a second corporation that was related to or did business with the first corporation, the second corporation would with increasing frequency claim that, even though it was not the worker’s actual (or “general”) employer, it was the worker’s “special employer” and that, by virtue of that circumstance, it was immune from being sued (just like the general employer is immune).
This has especially occurred in cases in which the victim was a building maintenance worker. Often, workers are directly employed by the building owner, which is therefore immune from suit. Often, the building owner hires a separate company to manage the building. Because workers can sue “third persons” who negligently caused them injury, the fact that a building worker was employed by the building owner should not prevent the worker from suing the managing agent if the agent was to blame for the accident in question. However, in recent years, building agents who are sued have been increasingly successful in arguing that they are “special employers” of the worker, and thus immune from suit.
Mr. William Bautista was a 43-year-old man who had come to this country unable to speak English. He eventually became a United States citizen and obtained employment as a building porter in a Manhattan apartment building.
Mr. Bautista was later injured, on the job, while trying to paint a staircase. He sued the managing agent for its failure to provide him with proper equipment and protection for the job.
The agent moved to dismiss Mr. Bautista’s case based on its claim that it was Mr. Bautista’s “special employer.” The trial-level judge credited the argument and dismissed the case.
Sullivan Papain partners Brian J. Shoot and Marie Ng appealed that ruling to a higher court, the Appellate Division. The Appellate Division agreed with the Sullivan Papain position that workers like Mr. Bautista can sue the building agent unless the agent can prove that it actually directed the details of the worker’s work. In reinstating Mr. Bautista’s case, the Court said:
“… because this Court has determined in other cases that a particular building manager was the special employer of a particular employee of a building it hardly follows that defendant is, as a matter of law, the special employer of plaintiff. To so hold would be to adopt a rule that affords all building managers the status of special employers of the employees of the buildings the building managers operate. Such a rule would offend the well-settled principle that the title of the putative special employer, e.g., a managing agent, is not controlling, but rather the actual working relationship between the putative special employer and the purported special employee.”
The ruling in Mr. Bautista’s favor benefits not only him, but other similarly situated building employees who seek compensation above and beyond their often inadequate workers’ compensation benefits.