By: Kimberly Nuñez, Esq.
In its recent opinion in Dina Gil, as Administrator of the Estate of Rafael Gil v. Tenet Health System North Shore, Inc., et al., 41 Fla. L. Weekly D2567a (Fla. 4th DCA 2016), the Fourth District Court of Appeal addressed the danger of an employer taking inconsistent positions in workers’ compensation and tort cases. The Fourth District Court of Appeal held that when an employer takes inconsistent positions, the doctrine of estoppel will preclude an employer from asserting workers’ compensation immunity in a subsequent tort claim.
The issue in Gil was whether the trial court erred in granting summary judgment in favor of the employer after determining that the employer was not estopped from asserting workers’ compensation immunity because its workers’ compensation denial was not inconsistent with the employer’s position in the subsequent wrongful death claim.
If an employer takes the position in a workers’ compensation claim that the injury did not occur in the course and scope of employment or that there was no employment relationship, then the employer may be estopped from claiming immunity. However, if an employer merely states a workers’ compensation defense, such as medical causation, then the employer will not be sopped from later asserting immunity in the tort lawsuit.
Decedent, Rafael Gil (“Decedent”), worked as a carpenter for North Shore Medical Center (“Hospital”), where he was exposed to hazardous materials and subsequently died of cancer due to the exposure. His wife filed a workers’ compensation claim with the Hospital, which was denied. The notice of denial stated “[e]ntire claim denied as claimant’s employment is not the major contributing cause of his death”. Decedent’s wife then voluntarily dismissed the workers’ compensation claim and filed a wrongful death suit against the Hospital. The Hospital moved for summary judgment on the grounds that it was immune from civil suit because workers’ compensation was decedent’s sole remedy. Trial court granted Hospital’s summary judgment determining that the Hospital had not taken inconsistent positions.
The Fourth District Court of Appeal reversed the trial court’s order granting summary judgment in favor of Hospital, and remanded it for further proceedings. The Fourth District Court of Appeal held that the Hospital’s notice of denial was ambiguous and unclear as to the reason the Hospital denied benefits, which created a dispute of material fact precluding summary judgment. The Fourth District Court of Appeal reasoned the notice failed to state whether benefits were being denied because the injury was outside the course and scope of employment or because the compensable work injury was not the major contributing cause for decedent’s death. As such, it could not be determined if estoppel applied.
This ruling sheds light on the danger of employers taking inconsistent positions in workers’ compensation claims from those taken in a subsequent tort lawsuit. This ruling is also particularly important in its indication that ambiguous notices of denial create a material issue of fact opening the door to the possibility of estoppel.