An Ohio appeals court amended, but upheld, a trial court’s decision denying an injured worker’s lawsuit against his employer who was also the sole full-time employee of the company.
The Court of Appeals for the 5th District of Ohio found not only that the company and owner were each distinct and separate entities who could each be sued, but that the owner, as the only employee, was working in service of the company and couldn’t be held liable in this case.
Owner did administrative work, mowed, serviced equipment
Nicholas Whalen was the owner and only full-time employee of Whalen Lawn and Landscaping (WLL), a company that offers lawn and landscaping services. Whalen would hire more help depending on how busy WLL was at a specific time.
Temporary workers would provide lawn and landscaping services while Whalen took care of all the administrative and business duties. However, Whalen did mow lawns when necessary and performed minor maintenance on company equipment.
Injured worker: Mower’s kill switch was disabled
Christopher Gundel was working for WLL operating a riding lawnmower on May 11, 2019, at an assigned job site. When the mower became stuck in the mud, Gundel dismounted to free the mower when his foot slipped and went under the machine. His leg suffered severe lacerations and had to be amputated below the knee.
Gundel applied for, and received, benefits through the Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation (BWC). He also filed a lawsuit against both WLL and Whalen. He claimed that:
- Whalen wasn’t an employee of WLL
- Whalen couldn’t legally qualify as an employee and sole member of a limited liability company (LLC)
- a safety switch on the mower that would cut power when the operator left the seat wasn’t working, and
- Whalen either negligently failed to properly maintain the switch or intentionally disabled it.
Insurance refuses to provide defense, indemnification
Whalen’s personal and business insurance companies filed separate judgment actions claiming they didn’t owe Whalen or WLL a defense or indemnification because of protections granted under the LLC.
Meanwhile, Whalen requested dismissal of the lawsuit because a trial court in the insurance companies’ cases found he was Gundel’s employer which limited Gundel to the workers’ compensation benefits he was already receiving.
Whalen also asserted that since the trial court found there was no evidence of an intention to cause an injury, or that Whalen knew an injury was substantially certain, he couldn’t be held liable.
The trial court agreed with Whalen and the insurance companies and denied Gundel’s lawsuit.
Owner protected by workers’ comp law
Gundel filed an appeal and the appeals court found that:
- the trial court erred in finding Whalen was Gundel’s employer in this case because of an unwarranted disregard of the legal entity WLL
- WLL is a discrete legal entity, separate from Whalen, and Whalen can therefore be held responsible for his own tortious acts, and
- Whalen, in performing maintenance on the lawnmower that injured Gundel, was operating as an employee of WLL.
What that means is that while Whalen could be sued separately from his business, in this case he was protected by the state’s workers’ compensation law since:
- he was a fellow employee whose actions, while negligent, weren’t intentional, and
- Gundel was already receiving workers’ compensation benefits for his injury.