Arvizu v. Heights Roofing Inc. – Culpable Negligence in Workplace Injuries
Florida workers who suffer serious injury on-the-job are entitled to the “exclusive remedy” of workers’ compensation. What this means is that employees can obtain relatively fast coverage for medical bills, lost wages and temporary disability, without having to prove fault.
The threshold for proving culpable negligence is high. It is not enough to show the employer was simply negligent, as you might in most other injury claims. The negligent conduct must rise to the level of “culpable.”
So let’s say a machine leaks oil and causes the worker to fall. That’s unlikely to be considered culpable negligence. Rather, it falls under the umbrella of simple negligence, which, per the 1955 Florida Supreme Court case of Bridges v. Speer, is “that course of conduct which a reasonable and prudent man would know might possibly result in injury to persons.”
While it used to be easier to prove culpable negligence for work injuries, a law passed in 2003 by Gov. Jeb Bush made it more difficult. Under Florida Statute 440.11(1)(b), these three elements be proven:
- The employer engaged in conduct known, based on similar accidents or explicit warnings specifically identifying the danger, to be virtually certain to result in injury or death to the worker;
- The employee wasn’t aware of the risk because the hazard was not obvious;
- The employer intentionally concealed or misrepresented the danger so as to prevent the worker from exercising informed judgment about whether to perform the work.
The recent case of Arvizu v. Heights Roofing Inc. , reviewed by Florida’s 3rd District Court of Appeal, reveals just how difficult these claims can be to prove. The worker died after suffering a fall from a roof. However, the appellate court ruled this alone was not sufficient to support a finding of culpable negligence under Florida law.
Harkening back to the earlier 2003 decision in by the 3rd DCA in Fla. Dep’t. of Transp. v. Julania, the court noted there is no evidence of culpable negligence in cases where a supervisor is merely aware of a poor condition and could have done more to remedy it, but failed. Going back to 1995 with the 5th DCA’s ruling in Mekamy Oaks, Inc. v. Snyder, the court found even the supervisor’s removal of a safety switch did not amount to culpable negligence warranting removal of the exclusive remedy provision of workers’ compensation.
Survivors of those killed at work are entitled to workers’ compensation death benefits. The state allows for up to $150,000 in death benefits, plus $7,500 for funeral expenses. This amount is available if a worker passes immediately, or dies within five years of the accident.
It’s worth noting the exclusive remedy provision does not apply to co-workers or third-parties. So for example, if a worker is on a construction site and injured by the negligence of the premises owner or another contractor, those parties may still be held liable for damages in civil court, in addition to the collection of workers’ compensation benefits.