Because commercial truck drivers are almost always at work when they get into serious crashes, I am accustomed to workers’ compensation issues being involved in my work as a Missouri tractor-trailer accident attorney. But it’s much more rare to have a multi-vehicle accident in which two victims were at work for the same employer in separate cars. That situation raised an unusual workers’ compensation defense in McDaniel v. Lee and PP Trucking, Inc., a decision of the Appellate Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey. Jeffrey McDaniel and Fernandino Devers were both working for Sprint/Nextel when they were involved in a chain-reaction crash caused by Man Wai Lee, a truck driver who failed to brake in time for a red light. Lee appealed to the court for an opportunity to sue Devers for alleged negligence contributing to the crash.
McDaniel was driving a Sprint/Nextel vehicle when he stopped at a red light in Newark. Devers was stopped directly behind him in another Sprint/Nextel vehicle. Lee, in an eighteen-wheeler, approached from behind but did not stop in time, so it rear-ended the vehicle driven by Devers, which was pushed into McDaniel’s vehicle. McDaniel and Devers testified that they suffered a second impact as well. Devers was taken to the hospital in an ambulance; McDaniel drove himself. They both made successful workers’ compensation claims and also filed separate claims against Lee and his employer, PP Trucking. The two suits were later consolidated for trial. In McDaniel’s case, Lee also filed a third-party complaint against Devers, arguing that Devers was negligent and contributed to McDaniel’s injuries. McDaniel’s attorney, who also represented Devers, moved to dismiss on the grounds that it was frivolous and sought sanctions. Lee moved to disqualify the attorney, arguing he had a conflict of interests. The court denied both motions and both were appealed.
The Appellate Division ultimately found that Lee’s third-party claim against Devers was barred by New Jersey’s Workers’ Compensation Act. Under most circumstances, that Act bars lawsuits by injured employees against both their employers and their colleagues. No precedent existed on whether it also bars third-party actions against a colleague, but the court applied precedent on third-party actions against the employer. In those cases, courts found that under workers’ compensation law, the employer cannot ever be lumped in as a tortfeasor by a third party. The same, it found, is true of a colleague. It rejected claims that workers’ compensation law does not apply because the two men were in separate cars. The court also briefly addressed the merits of Lee’s claim that Devers contributed to McDaniel’s injuries. Lee made several speculations, the court noted — that they staged the accident, Devers was drinking, the two were not at work or Devers was negligently entrusted with the vehicle. All are without factual basis in the record, the appeals court said. In fact, Lee acknowledged that he had no facts to support a third-party claim. Thus, the third-party claim was dismissed. And because Devers and McDaniel may not sue one another, the court found no conflict for their attorney.
As a St. Louis big rig accident lawyer, I’d be pleased to see a similar ruling in Missouri. From the information contained in the opinion, it seems likely that Lee had no case against Devers and was merely trying to escape liability for a crash that he allegedly caused. (Though the case was not decided when the opinion was written, most officers will apportion 100 percent of the fault to the party who fails to stop for a signal and causes a rear-end crash.) Workers’ compensation law, by design, allows injured workers to collect payments regardless of fault, in exchange for not suing their employers. However, those workers may still sue a third party whose actions directly caused their injuries — and as a southern Illinois semi truck accident attorney, I’m happy to say that trucking companies and truckers are no exception.
If you or someone you love was seriously hurt in a crash with a trucker who wasn’t paying attention, don’t hesitate to call Carey, Danis & Lowe for help. For a free, confidential case evaluation, send us a message through our website or call 1-877-678-3400 today.
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