New York Church Volunteer’s Personal Injury Action Barred by Exclusive Remedy Rule

A church volunteer, who contended that she suffered injuries when she tripped and fell over an exposed power cord near or on the altar as she went to help distribute Communion, may not sue the church in tort as her civil action for negligence was barred by the exclusive remedy provisions of the New York Workers’ Compensation Law, held a state appellate court [Aprile-Sci v St. Raymond of Penyafort R.C. Church, 2017 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 4332 (2nd Dept., June 7, 2017)]. The court reiterated that in New York, primary jurisdiction for the determination of the applicability of the state’s Workers’ Compensation Law is vested in the Workers’ Compensation Board—and not the trial courts and that the employer, as well as the employee, may bring an injury to the Board’s attention. Once it does so, it is for the Board to determine the injured party’s eligibility for benefits.

Background

Here, the church was self-insured (through the Diocese) with coverage that extended to volunteers. Following the plaintiff’s injury, the church applied to the Workers’ Compensation Board (Board) for a determination of the injured plaintiff’s eligibility for benefits. The plaintiff failed to respond, and the Board determined that the plaintiff had a work-related injury and was entitled to benefits.

Subsequently, the plaintiff, and her husband suing derivatively, filed a personal injury action against the church. Hearing what amounted to a motion for summary judgment, the trial court declined to favor the church’s exclusivity defense, but the appellate court disagreed. The appellate court observed that the church had established its prima facie entitlement to judgment as a matter of law by demonstrating that the Board had determined that the injured plaintiff was eligible for workers’ compensation benefits under the Diocese’s policy, thereby precluding a personal injury action against the church. The appellate court added that the coverage eligibility issue was necessarily determined by the Board in a proceeding in which the injured plaintiff had the required notice and opportunity to be heard. She could not later object.

Was There a Contract of Hire?

This case illustrates that the unwary plaintiff can be harmed by a failure to understand the close and important interaction between tort law and workers’ compensation law. Ordinarily, in order for a state’s workers’ compensation law to apply, there must be a contract of hire between the purported employer and the “employee.” Here, the plaintiff was a church volunteer. She might well have been able to establish the lack of an employment relationship between the church and herself, had she responded to the Board’s notice. She, of course, failed to do so.

Practice Point

The appellate court noted that the plaintiff was represented by counsel at the time she received the notice and that the injured plaintiff was notified on multiple occasions by the Diocese’s claims adjuster that a claim had been filed and her exclusive remedy was in workers’ compensation. This case illustrates that sitting on one’s rights can have serious consequences.

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