Something is in the air, and it smells like the sweet scent of justice. As a personal injury lawyer in Miami, Fl, I am almost reluctant to write about another case of Florida’s smug worker’s compensation laws getting kicked to the curb by brave jurists for fear that I may anger the forces of the universe that seem to control the outcome of cases like these. Still, this particular result is gratifying to us personal injury lawyers in Miami who spend our days and nights toiling in courtrooms across Florida on behalf of the many voiceless and powerless innocent men and women, simply trying to do their jobs to support their families, who are hurt or killed by the negligence of companies that profit from their labor.
That being said, Florida’s First Court of Appeal issued an opinion in the case of Steven Wood, who was seriously injured by a 40-ton mobile crane when he was working as a tree climber, assisting the crane operator in the removal of an oak tree that was 75 feet tall and 75 feet wide. In and around Jacksonville, Florida, it is customary for men like Wood to bounce from job to job as tree climbers, paid by the day for their work, providing their own safety and climbing equipment.
Florida’s Worker’s Compensation Law Section 440 generally requires that employers pay compensation and benefits for an employee who suffers an accident or death arising from work performed in the course and scope of employment. In addition, personal injury lawyers know that all private employers of four or more employees in the construction industry are required by law to obtain worker’s compensation insurance.
When a contractor uses subcontractors to perform certain tasks, the contractor takes on the legal responsibility to provide compensation coverage and benefits to of all of the employees of the subcontractor. In exchange for providing compensation to injured employees, employers enjoy virtual immunity from the types of claims and legal rights that can be asserted against virtually any other person or business in Florida for negligence, such as claims for compensation for pain and suffering and the right to a jury trial.
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This means that defining both how labor is performed and how a given employee is supervised and paid can have significant legal implications for both the employer and the injured worker.
When Mr. Wood was injured, he sued Southern Crane Service for negligence. Even though Mr. Wood, was never employed by Southern Crane, they claimed that he was their employee and as such was entitled to worker’s compensation benefits but precluded from suing them for negligence.
The court was faced with an important question:
Do tree pruning accidents in Florida automatically fall under the construction accident definition of worker’s compensation, thereby requiring coverage simply because a large crane is involved?
The Court answered with a solid “maybe”—if the crane is part of the “normal and incidental” pruning and removal services, which in this case it was not. Therefore, it refused to recognize Mr. Wood’s tree-pruning services as those of a construction contractor, thereby depriving the Southern Crane Service of immunity from his injury claim.