Exclusive Remedy: The Scope of Protection in Illinois Workers’ Comp

Section 5(a) of the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Act provides the damages an employer must pay for work-related injuries. It specifies a worker injured in the line of duty cannot sue her employer or its other employees.

That prohibition is easy enough to apply where one employee is injured by the negligence of another, or of the employer, at the business premises or on a job site. But what happens to the notion that the Act is the only available recovery when the employee is hurt at a public location and a third party is at least partially to blame? How much “exclusivity” can an employer expect in those circumstances?

In Peng v. Nardi, Kouk, and Guan, a case recently decided by the First District Appellate Court, Peng, a restaurant worker, was injured in a collision between the van in which she was a passenger and vehicles operated by Nardi and Kouk. In addition to those two, Peng sued Guan, who was driving the van, and Royal, the owner of the restaurant where she was employed. Guan also worked at the restaurant.

The van, a 15-seater, had been provided by Royal to transport employees like Peng to and from the restaurant. Not only did Royal provide the van, it paid Guan extra to drive it. Moreover, Royal covered Guan’s expenses. Royal also set limits on Guan’s use of the van; for example, he could not use it for personal errands and was to leave it parked when he was not transporting Royal’s employees.

Peng argued that regardless of whether Royal provided the van, her presence in it had nothing to do with her job duties. She stressed that: 1) she was not required to use the van to get to work; and, 2) was not on the clock (and therefore uncompensated) as she travelled in it.

The court rejected Peng’s arguments under the authority of Section 5(a). Applying the Exclusivity Provision to the facts at hand, the court concluded that by providing a vehicle for transporting workers to and from the job, Royal had “sent (Peng) home on a small ambulatory portion of the (business) premise.” The operative facts, according to the court, showed Royal controlled petitioner’s transportation and had thus expanded the risk of the workplace.

So Royal avoided its employee’s lawsuit, but, as an employer, was it completely insulated from all civil liability? That issue was not squarely addressed by the Peng court, but the opinion of the Illinois Supreme Court in Ramsey v. Morrison (1997) takes it on. The worker, Ramsey, was hurt when the truck in which he was a passenger collided with a vehicle operated by Morrison. Ramsey sued Morrison who in turn filed contribution actions against Baker, the driver of the truck, and Auto Repair, “Auto.” The evidence demonstrated that Auto was the employer of both Ramsey and Baker and that, at the time of the crash, the two were engaged in job connected duties.

In considering whether Morrison was owed contribution by Baker or Auto, the Supreme Court first noted that by virtue of the exclusivity language of Section 5(a), neither owed any recovery to Ramsey separate from what was available under the Workers’ Compensation Act. Likewise, Baker, driving the truck in discharge of his job duties, was protected even from Morrison’s claim for contribution. However, as against Auto, the court held Morrison could recover contribution in a limited amount on the basis of the negligence of its employee Baker. The court concluded though that Auto’s liability to Morrison could not exceed the amount of the workers’ compensation benefits provided to Ramsey.

Thus, the scope of protection afforded an employer under the concept of workers’ compensation exclusivity extends only so far. In cases where one of its employees negligently injures another as they pursue job-related tasks, the employer is safe from civil liability to the worker, but not to a third party whom the injured worker sues.

This article was first published by Insurance Journal.

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