Rhode Island’s Exclusive Remedy Rule Shields Worker Who Engaged in Dangerous Horseplay

On Tuesday of this week, the Supreme Court of Rhode Island affirmed a determination by a state trial court that granted summary judgment, on exclusive remedy grounds [see R.I. Gen. Laws § 28-29-20 (1956)], to a defendant in a negligence action filed by a co-worker who sustained serious burn injuries in an incident involving the defendant’s act of horseplay [Mello v. Killeavy, 2019 R.I. LEXIS 56 (Apr. 23, 2019)]. The Court stressed that where an employee accepts workers’ compensation benefits, he or she may not later sue either the employer or a co-employee in tort, even if the co-employee’s actions were outside the course and scope of the employment, as the plaintiff had alleged here. As noted below, Rhode Island’s stance on this issue is contrary to the majority of U.S. jurisdictions.

Background

Mello and Killeavy were both employees of Ramsay’s Inc. (“the employer”), a small, family-owned company in Rhode Island. Killeavy had worked as a seasonable laborer since August 2015. Mello had worked for the employer since 2008. According to the Court, the two enjoyed a friendly relationship and engaged in practical jokes while on the job.

On the day of the incident, the two were working at the same site when, at one point during the workday, Mello was occupying a bathroom stall. Killeavy, using a gas canister that he found on the job site, poured gasoline onto the bathroom floor, intending to light it on fire as a practical joke. He said his intention was only to scare Mello. Unbeknownst to Killeavy, some of the gasoline flowed into the stall that Mello occupied, and, when the gasoline burst into flames, Mello was severely burned. He remained hospitalized for some time and was unable to work for more than a year.

Shortly after the incident, Mello began accepting workers’ compensation benefits for the injury. Later, when the owner of the employer learned the circumstances of the incident, he fired Killeavy.

Six weeks after the incident, Mello filed a complaint in Superior Court against Killeavy, alleging negligence on the part of Killeavy and alleging further that at all times relevant to the civil action, Mello had been performing duties on behalf of the employer.

Subsequently, Killeavy filed a motion for summary judgment, contending in pertinent part that the exclusivity provision of the Rhode Island Workers’ Compensation Act barred Mello’s negligence claim because Mello had accepted workers’ compensation benefits.

Unpaid Meal Break

Mello countered that at the time of the incident, Killeavy was on a lunch break. As such, Mello argued the injury did not occur in the course of Killeavy’s employment and Mello, as plaintiff, should accordingly be allowed to sue Killeavy in tort as a “third party,” despite Mello’s acceptance of workers’ compensation benefits.

The trial judge granted Killeavy’s motion for summary judgment, finding that the exclusivity provision provided both the employer and co-employees with immunity from tort liability. Citing several precedents, the trial judge also said there was no exception for intentional torts or wrongful conduct of the fellow employee. The judge reasoned that by accepting benefits, Mello waived any right he might have had to challenge whether he was injured during the course of his employment. Mello appealed.

Supreme Court’s Decision

Citing DiQuinzio v. Panciera Lease Co., Inc., 612 A.2d 40, 42 (R.I. 1992), the Court initially observed that “[w]hen an injured employee receives workers’ compensation benefits, the exclusivity provisions of § 28-29-20 extinguish all other rights to recovery based on the wrongful conduct of the injured employee’s employer or that employer’s directors, officers, agents, or employees.”

The Court acknowledged that third parties could be sued in tort pursuant to the provisions of R.I. Gen. Laws § 28-35-38, but said that statutory provision did not help Mello. It noted that under Mello’s theory, a person who was injured on the job and collected workers’ compensation benefits would not thereafter be barred by the exclusivity provision from suing the co-employee who caused the injury when the co-employee’s acts could be considered to be outside the scope of employment. The Rhode Island high court stuck to its position, however, adopting what amounts to an election of remedies approach to the plaintiff’s situation.

The Court cited several precedents for its position that Mello’s argument could not prevail (although this writer would note that none of the cases cited involved any egregious activity on the part of the co-employee). The Court also cast aside Mello’s public policy argument, acknowledging that other jurisdictions, either by legislative enactment or judicial opinion, have created exceptions to the strict rule of granting immunity for tortious acts of co-employees. In as much as there was no exception, the Court affirmed the trial court’s ruling.

Rhode Island Follows Minority Rule

It should be noted that with this decision Rhode Island is out of sync with the majority of U.S. jurisdictions [see the extensive discussion of this issue in Larson’s Workers’ Compensation Law, § 111.03[3]; for a discussion of the election of remedies issue, see Larson, § 102.01 et. seq.].

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