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Can You Waive Your Rights Against Third Parties Under the Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act?

A recent case addressing the issue of claims against third parties in situations otherwise covered by workers’ compensation arose out of a woman’s job working as a private security guard for security service. In order to obtain employment, she had signed a Workers’ Compensation Disclaimer in which she waived her right to sue any of her employers’ clients for damages in the event she was injured under the Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act. She was injured in the snow while offering security to a refiner.

She filed a workers’ compensation claim and got benefits to compensate her for her injury. She later filed a negligence lawsuit against the refinery. She argued that the refinery failed to maintain safe conditions. During discovery the disclaimer was produced. The refinery filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings arguing that her claim was barred by the fact that she had signed the disclaimer.

The woman argued that public policy barred the disclaimer from being enforced and that the waiver could not apply to a cause of action that had not accrued at the time she signed it. Section 204(a) of the Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act states that no agreement made ahead of time can bar a claim for damages resulting from an injury. The trial court determined that the disclaimer didn’t offend public policy under that section.

The Superior Court affirmed the trial court, reasoning she had waived her right to sue her employer’s customers for injuries covered by the Act. She had not waived her workers’ compensation payable by her employer. Therefore, the Superior Court ruled that section 204(a) did not bar the release.

The woman appealed, asking the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania to decide whether the Superior Court had erred, disregarding public policy and the Act. She argued, among other things, that the Superior Court had added words to the plain language of the Act in determining that the section did not invalidate waivers for actions against third parties.

The refinery argued that section 204(a) applied only where an employer tried to limit its own liability, not the liability of third parties. It also argued that in this case the woman was fully compensated for her injuries that were covered by the statute and that she had not been forced to sign the waiver.

The Court looked at the plain language. Its first consideration was whether the language was ambiguous — whether it was susceptible to more than one interpretation. The Court will only look at legislative intent if there is an ambiguity. It explained that section 204(a) does not explicitly address third party claims; it focuses on employers. Accordingly, the Court found an ambiguity.

It explained that the Act did not always offer an exclusive remedy. The Pennsylvania legislature originally planned that section 204(a) would apply only to agreements to bar an employee bringing a claim against his or her employer, not to the circumstances in their totality. It also explained that waivers that release liability for actions that haven’t happened yet, are determined to be invalid only if they involve actions that are wholly different than what the parties contemplated at the time the release was signed.

It ruled that the woman was not forced to sign the waiver, nor was she prevented from receiving workers’ compensation. While employers could not contract away liability, the disclaimer guaranteed to customers they would not be liable for the employees’ injuries. The Supreme Court affirmed the Superior Court’s ruling in favor of the refinery.

If you are hurt on the job you may be entitled to benefits, but you may also have rights to compensation from third parties. Accordingly, you may be best served by attorneys that are experienced not only in workers’ compensation, but also personal injury. Our experienced Pennsylvania workers’ compensation  and personal injury attorneys can evaluate your case. If appropriate, we can file a workers’ compensation claim as well as a civil lawsuit to get you the compensation you deserve. Contact the attorneys at Needle Law Firm at 570-344-1266 or via our online form for a free consultation.

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