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Georgia Supreme Court Rules to Reduce Third Party Tort Liability in Workers’ Compensation Cases

In this blog we have frequently discussed the issue of personal injury claims against third parties as it relates to workers’ compensation and the exclusive remedy provision. A November 16, 2015 decision by the Supreme Court of Georgia has fundamentally altered the right of an injured worker to recover their full damages from a third party by allowing defendants in such actions to employ an empty chair defense to reduce their liability. That is, liable third parties are now explicitly permitted to introduce evidence of the employer’s relative fault in tort litigation, even though the employer is not a party to the litigation and can never be required to pay its share of the total damages. The result of this ruling is that in many cases injured plaintiffs will be unable to recover the full extent of their damages, even with a workers’ compensation settlement and a successful lawsuit.

The Exclusive Remedy Doctrine

The exclusive remedy doctrine is a major part of the no-fault compromise underlying workers’ compensation law. It enables workers to recover damages through the quicker and more efficient administrative process without having to prove that the employer is to blame for their injury.  However, it also limits the injured employee’s recovery to the amounts set forth in the statute and bars them from bringing further action against their employer in tort.

Apportioning Fault Among a Single Defendant

Where this all becomes incredibly frustrating for injured workers is when they in fact do have a case against a liable third party, but where the employer also bears some fault. Personal injury law generally requires juries to determine each party’s share of the blame for an injury, and apportion damages accordingly. When an injured plaintiff is partly to blame for the accident, the principle of comparative fault requires juries to reduce their total recovery from other liable parties in proportion to that fault.  When two or more tortfeasors are jointly liable, the jury is required to apportion damages among them accordingly.

However, what happens when one of the liable parties is not a party to the case because they have already settled or because they have legal immunity from liability? Georgia law now unequivocally states that the jury must consider the fault of these parties even though they have not been named in the lawsuit or introduced any evidence of their own. In essence, this allows the defendant to place all the blame on the empty chair and puts the burden of defending another liable party entirely on the plaintiff. It is hard to imagine a more unjust result, but this is now the state of the law in Georgia.

A Silver Lining?

Perhaps the only positive thing that can come from this ruling from a plaintiff’s perspective is that it makes an employer’s subrogation claim against certain tort recoveries less likely. Unfortunately, the reason for this is that the total recovery will have been diminished to the point that the plaintiff has not been made whole. At the same time, it may provoke some employers to more actively exercise their right to intervene in such lawsuits so as to protect their subrogation rights. If they are not at fault, they have a legitimate claim to recover what they have paid in workers’ compensation benefits from the liable party. However, their chance of doing so is substantially reduced if that party is permitted to slander them in court without them being present to defend themselves. This means that we will likely see more employers take active roles in their employee’s suits against third parties—assuming the legal expenses are worth it to them. Time will tell whether that assumption will be justified in enough cases to protect injured workers from the worst consequences of this latest ruling.

Contact a Georgia Workers’ Compensation Attorney Today

If you are injured on the job, you have a right to workers’ compensation. In light of recent developments, getting the maximum amount in workers’ compensation payments you can get by law is even more important, because the possibility of recovering your full damages in court is now diminished. Do not get squeezed from both sides. Let the workers’ compensation experts at the Bader Scott Injury Lawyers handle your case to maximize your settlement. Call us for a free case review.  We will help determine the value of your workers’ compensation claim, and we will fight to make sure you get what you deserve. If you have a third party personal injury claim, we can provide references from our deep network in the legal community to assist you with that as well.

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Seth Bader
(678) 562-5595