Two state laws seem to conflict about employees’ right to sue their employer over exposure to toxic chemicals.
Employees said General Dynamics improperly stored, spilled, discharged, disposed of and dumped toxic chemicals in and around its Lake Mary, FL, facility, making the location hazardous to their health.
Forty-one workers and their families sued under Florida’s Water Quality Assurance Act (WQAA) for injuries or wrongful death caused by occupational exposure to the hazardous substances.
General Dynamics asked a state court to throw out the lawsuit, noting that Florida’s workers’ comp law gives employers immunity from civil suits by employees in exchange for carrying workers’ comp insurance. The usual exception applies: Employees can sue when an employer engaged in conduct that it knew was virtually certain to result in injury or death to employees.
However, in this case, the employees weren’t using the exception to sue. They sued under the WQAA.
Which law applies?
The WQAA lists four instances in which it can’t be used to recover damages: war, an act of government, an act of God, or an act of omission by a third party.
The employees noted that workers’ comp wasn’t among the four exceptions.
Initially, a state court agreed with the employees and allowed the lawsuit to go forward.
But General Dynamics asked a state appeals court to throw out the lawsuit.
The court noted that the WQAA and workers’ comp law appeared to conflict with each other.
In previous Florida cases, courts noted that the workers’ comp law provided “broad employer immunity from liability actions,” and that “immunity is the heart and soul of this legislation.”
So in this case, the appeals court held that workers’ comp was the exclusive remedy that the employees could use. They couldn’t sue under the WQAA. The court granted General Dynamics’ motion to dismiss the lawsuit.
(General Dynamics Corp. v. Brottem, Dist. Crt. of Appeal of FL, 5th Dist., No. 5D09-3719, 12/30/10)
What do you think about the court’s decision? Let us know in the Comments Box below.