Several states – including Florida – allow defendants in negligence actions to assert fault against a non-party as an affirmative defense. Because only named parties can be liable to pay anything in a civil lawsuit, allowing a jury to find fault or partial fault against a non-party will reduce the ultimate damage award of a plaintiff.
In some cases, non-parties may include entities or individuals that plaintiffs failed to timely identify. But in many other cases, non-party tortfeasors are those that have some kind of affirmative defense or immunity. For example, because of the exclusive remedy doctrine, employers generally have immunity in civil cases filed by employees for work-related injuries.
The Florida Supreme Court solidified this in the 1993 decision of Fabre v. Marin. That case established that if a defendant could prove the fault of a non-party at trial, jurors would be allowed to apportion fault to that non-party in the verdict form, thereby reducing plaintiff damages. A number of legislative efforts since then have sought to limit the scope of the doctrine, but none have so far succeeded.
Recently, the Georgia Supreme Court grappled with the same issue. Several months ago, it decided a case called Zaldivar v. Prickett. This was a traffic accident lawsuit in which defendant asserted plaintiff’s employer was at least partially to blame for the crash for negligently entrusting the vehicle to plaintiff. Trial court and appellate court rejected the assertion that fault could be attributed to the employer and appeals court affirmed. But the state supreme court reversed, concluding that fault could be attributed to a non-party when that party is shown to have committed a tort against a plaintiff that’s the proximate cause of the injury.
That brings us to another injury lawsuit considered by the Georgia Supreme Court, Walker v. Tensor Machinery Ltd.
In this case, plaintiff was injured at work in 2010 while operating a machine that was designed and manufactured by defendants. He later reached a workers’ compensation benefits settlement with his employer, and afterward filed a lawsuit against the manufacture. Plaintiff alleged defendant negligently failed to warn of the safety-related defects of the machine. His wife also sued for loss of consortium.
Defendant manufacturer filed noted that it intended to ask jurors in this case to assign some responsibility for plaintiff’s injuries to his employer. Plaintiff filed a motion in limine to exclude all evidence of his employer’s fault, asserting the law doesn’t allow plaintiff to apportion fault to his employer because the employer is immune from liability under workers’ compensation provisions.
The court noted that an affirmative defense or immunity doesn’t eliminate “fault” or affect the issue of proximate cause of one’s injuries. Rather, it governs the outcome and who will be responsible to pay for it.
Justices noted it has been the practice of many other jurisdictions (including Florida) to include all tortfeasors in the apportionment question when weighing damages. That can include persons who are negligent, but not necessarily liable to the injured party for damages. That would include employers who are protected under workers’ compensation law.
If you have been injured in an accident, contact the Hollander Law Firm at (888) 751-7770 for a free and confidential consultation. There is no fee unless we win.
Walker v. Tensor Machinery Ltd., Nov. 16, 2015, Georgia Supreme Court
More Blog Entries:
Stahl v. Hialeah Hospital – Florida Supreme Court to Weigh Exclusive Remedy in Workers’ Comp. Case, Nov. 26, 2015, Naples Car Accident Lawyer Blog