Assertive Advocates For Injured Workers

Third Party immune From Liability Pursuant to Section 5(a) of the Act:

By: Richard D. Hannigan of Hannigan & Botha

In Mockdee et. al. v. Humphrey Manlift Company 2012 IL App (First) 093189, an employee of Quaker Oats in Danville, Illinois became a quadriplegic when she fell into a floor opening that was part of a man lift platform system at the Quaker Oats plant. Prior to this injury, Quaker Oats had hired Humphrey Manlift Company, Harris Industries and R. Harris Electric as safety inspectors of the manlift platform system through which she had fallen. After the fall, the Occupational Safety and Health Act issued a violation to Quaker Oats based upon an absence of a guardrail at the floor opening. The injured employee then filed a civil complaint for damages against Humphrey, Harris Industries and R. Harris Electric for the injuries sustained. The injured worker’s argument was that either one or a combination of those three entities breached a duty of care by failing to note the need for a guardrail and or facilitating a guardrail.

Quaker Oats had hired Harris to inspect, maintain and repair the man lift platform system at the Danville plant and paid them approximately $40,000.00.

The defendants filed Motions for Summary Judgment based; 1) that there was no duty of care that existed between the injured worker and the defendants, 2) as a safety service organization it was immune from liability under Section 5(a) of the Workers’ Compensation Act, 3) there is no duty of care because the dangerous condition was open and obvious and because the OSHA sections governing man lifts did not give rise to a duty of care on the part of one of the defendants and 4) the acts of the defendant or omissions thereof were not a proximate cause of the injuries.

The circuit court ruled that even if the defendants owed the injured worker a duty of care they were entitled to summary judgment as a matter of law on the issue of proximate cause because there was no evidence as to the cause of the injured worker’s fall. The circuit court declined to adopt the defendants’ claim that it was entitled to immunity under the Workers’ Compensation Act. The circuit court judgment was appealed.

The appellate court rejected the circuit court’s judgment but still held for the defendants stating that the defendants were service organizations as defined under Section 5(a) of the Workers’ Compensation Act and therefore entitled to immunity. Section 5(a) of the Workers’ Compensation Act was amended in 1969. It was amended to provide; “No common law or statutory right to recover damages from the employer, his insurer, his broker, any service organization retained by the employer, his insurer or his broker to provide safety service, advice or recommendations for the employer or the agents or employees of any of them or any injury or death sustained by any employee while engaged in the line of his duty as such employee ***”.

The court noted that this 1969 amendment was a legislative response to a Florida Supreme Court case that permitted a common-law action against an insurer of the employer for the negligent performance of gratuitous safety inspections and safety engineering services. The court held that “service organization” should be given its plain meaning. It is any organization that provides safety service, advice or recommendations for the employer. In order to encourage employers to seek safety advice the legislature has given these safety organizations immunity. Therefore, the complaint was properly dismissed pursuant to summary judgment.