R.L. Haines Construction v. Santamaria – $2M Construction Accident Verdict Reversed

In seeking compensation for a Florida construction accident, there are many factors to consider. In many cases, workers’ compensation is the exclusive remedy available to those injured on the job. However, there could be an exception if the company is deemed to be culpably negligent. It’s a difficult standard to overcome. There also may be an option for a third-party lawsuit, in which negligence claims can be pursued against someone other than the employer.

Our West Palm Beach construction accident lawyers are experienced in helping clients determine the best course of action, based on the underlying facts. steelbeam

The recent case of R.L. Haines Construction, LLC v. Santamaria et al. reveals how difficult it can be to overcome employer immunity pursuant to the Worker’s Compensation Law, Chapter 440 of Florida Statutes.

The lawsuit stems from the tragic death of a construction worker – husband and father to three young children – while working on a 200,000 warehouse expansion project in South Florida.

According to court records, the general contractor hired a subcontractor to help with the work. That subcontractor was the employer of decedent, who was a foreman. Part of the subcontractor’s job was to erect steel support columns, each standing 30 feet high and weighing over 2,000 pounds. Each column was attached to bolts that were anchored to a concrete base by an epoxy adhesive. Before workers could erect the columns, the adhesive had to cure for a certain amount of time, which depended on the temperature of the concrete.

One day, the subcontractor secured several anchor bolts to the slabs with the adhesive material. Although the instructions for installation indicated 72 hours was needed for proper drying, the general contractor instructed the subcontractor to begin erecting the columns after just 44 hours of drying time.

While the worker was tightening the wire on one one of the columns, the column fell onto him. He died instantly.

His wife, on behalf of herself and three children, sued the general contractor, arguing the facts fell within the scope of the intentional tort exception to workers’ compensation immunity. The trial court agreed. At trial, plaintiffs argued the general contractor knew that not allowing the adhesive to fully cure could lead to the collapse of a column, which was almost certain to result in serious injury or death.

A jury agreed, and awarded $2.4 million to plaintiff. Defendant appealed.

Florida’s Fifth District Court of Appeal reversed the jury’s verdict.

The standard applied by the appellate court in its review was whether employe’s actions were “virtually certain” to result in injury or death. This standard was established by the state legislature in 2003.

The appellate courts have applied this standard differently. For example, the 4th DCA has indicated it means a plaintiff must show the given danger will result in an accident every single time, or almost every single time. The standard is so strict, the 4th DCA indicated, “we suspect few employees can meet (it).”

The 3rd DCA, in the 2013 case of Vallejos v. Lan Cargos, indicated plaintiff’s exclusive remedy exception claim lacked merit because other workers engaged in the same action for years prior with no accident meant that injury in that instance was not “virtually certain.”

In the R.L. Haines case, the 5th DCA found injury/death was not “virtually certain” because the record was devoid of any similar instances caused by this action. Further, there were other columns erected with shorter cure time that continued to stand and remain anchored.

The test, the appellate court noted, is not whether the injury was preventable, but whether it was practically inevitable. So while the shortened cure time was the likely cause of the column’s fall, plaintiffs did not present expert witness testimony indicating a reasonable inference prior to the accident that the column would inevitably fall.

For these plaintiffs, workers’ compensation death benefits are likely still an option. However, unless the Florida Supreme Court grants further review, plaintiffs will not be entitled to further compensation from the employer.

If you have been injured in a West Palm Beach construction accident, contact the Hollander Law Firm at 888-751-7777 for a free and confidential consultation. There is no fee unless we win.

Additional Resources:

R.L. Haines Construction, LLC v. Santamaria et al. , Sept. 19, 2014, Florida’s Fifth District Court of Appeal

More Blog Entries:

Single vs. Multiple Occurrences in Florida Personal Injury Cases, July 25, 2014, West Palm Beach Injury Attorney Blog