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Walker v. Tensor Machinery – Apportionment in Third-Party Liability

On Behalf of | Aug 6, 2015 | Georgia Work Accidents |

A plaintiff in a Georgia third-party liability lawsuit against an equipment manufacturer following a work-related injury is arguing against a defense request to add his employer as a non-party defendant.

In the case of Walker v. Tensor Machinery, defense asserts employer’s negligence was a factor in worker’s injury. Even though employer cannot be legally sued by plaintiff due to exclusive remedy provisions that bar workers from suing employers for occupational injuries, defense wants to add the company as a non-party defendant to potentially shift liability. This is called apportionment of damages. If a non-party defendant is found to be partially liable, plaintiff can’t collect that portion of damages, but the named party won’t be responsible for paying it.

Plaintiffs, meanwhile, argue that the immunity the employer obtains from exclusive remedy means there is no duty and therefore there is no tort and thus the employer can’t be found at-fault.

The legal arguments in this case are complex, and it’s being closely watched by workers’ compensation attorneys in Georgia.

Arguments were recently heard before the Georgia Supreme Court, which last month ruled on the issue of apportionment in the injury case of Zaldivar v. Prickett.

In 2005, a law was passed giving juries in civil lawsuits the ability to apportion fault – and damages – to non-parties of the litigation. This potentially reduces liability of defendants.

The Zaldivar decision essentially raised the bar for spreading blame. Justices decided only non-parties who have breached a legal duty to plaintiffs can be considered for apportionment damages. So what that means is in order to shift blame, the burden of proof is on defendant to show the non-party was negligent and that this negligence was the proximate cause of plaintiff’s injuries.

In Walker, the question is whether an employer can be considered a non-party if it has immunity and can’t be sued by the worker in the first place – regardless of negligence.

Defense argues it shouldn’t be liable for the negligence of the employer if that clearly played a role in the work-related accident.

According to court records in the Walker case, plaintiff worked in an optical fiber plant, where he suffered a serious injury while working with defendant’s machine. He alleges his foot was crushed when the machine malfunctioned.

The case was originally filed in state court, but was later moved to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia.

The case was slated for final pretrial conference in March, but there was a lack of certainty about whether apportionment was applicable in this case. The court certified a question to the Georgia Supreme Court. The question was still pending when the high court issued its ruling in Zaldivar.

Defendants argue the decision allows the court to consider fault of other parties, regardless of whether those parties have an affirmative defense or immunity from liability for whatever reason – including exclusive remedy via workers’ compensation law.

However, plaintiffs argue the ruling isn’t clear on this point.

Justices in hearing these arguments reportedly provided little comment, and are expected to issue a ruling on the matter in the next couple months.

For information on Atlanta work injury compensation, contact J. Franklin Burns, P.C., at 1-404-920-4708 .