In September 2011, the Massachusetts Court of Appeals issued a ruling in Leo Whitman’s Case, the first appellate case to address joint employers’ responsibility under the state’s workers’ compensation laws. The court said that the case presented two issues:
- Whether the plaintiff was an employee or a contractor
- Whether the state’s workers’ compensation laws impose liability on two employers if an employee was working for both employers at the time of a workplace injury
The court held that the plaintiff was an employee when he was injured and that both of his employers were responsible for paying his workers’ compensation benefits.
Background of the Workers’ Comp Case
Leo Whitman, a construction worker with expertise in drywall, brought suit against business partners Stephen Sarcia and John Citrano and a company called PPM for workers’ compensation benefits after he was injured on the job in December 2006. Scaffolding that he was working on collapsed, causing him to fall about 16 feet and break his leg.
Whitman had been repairing distressed property with Sarcia and Citrano since 2004. During that time, Sarcia and Citrano introduced Whitman to Anthony Pace, the owner of PPM, a company that engaged in the same type of work as Sarcia and Citrano.
Sarcia, Citrano and PPM continuously supplied Whitman with full-time work from 2004-2006. Whitman said that he viewed the three as a group, since they all gave him jobs. He never signed a contract or bid for the jobs.
Whitman’s construction site injury required surgery and left him partially disabled. After consulting a Massachusetts workers’ compensation attorney, Whitman brought suit for workers’ compensation benefits as an employee of Sarcia, Citrano and PPM. The defendants claimed that they were not responsible for paying benefits, as Whitman was a contractor, not an employee.
The Court’s Decision
The court disagreed with the defendants about Whitman’s employment status. Even though seven factors weighed in favor of categorizing Whitman as a contractor and only five factors weighed in favor of counting Whitman as an employee, the court gave greater weight to the factors that supported him being an employee. The court said that the lack of a contract which subjected Whitman to at-will employment, the continuous nature of the work, and the payment to Whitman directly and individually were the deciding elements.
The court also said that Sarcia, Citrano and PPM were a “consortium” for whom Whitman was working when he was injured, as all three were sharing expenses for purchasing and renovating the property on which Whitman was working. Whitman was working to advance the interests of PPM and Sarcia and Citrano, so he was the employee of all of them.
Massachusetts workers’ compensation law “allows separate entities to constitute joint employers,” so the fact that Sarcia and Citrano and PPM had separate management and finances for the project did not matter.
Employers often fight responsibility for employees’ injuries when workers get hurt on the job. If you have been injured in a workplace accident, do not hesitate to contact a workers’ compensation attorney who can help you obtain workers’ compensation benefits.