Law Updates

A Supervisor who Negligently Performs a Delegable Duty of Employment is Not Immune from Tort Liability Under Section 9-509 of the Maryland Workers’ Compensation Statute

Daniel C. Hayes v. Darien J. Pratchett, Court of Special Appeals of Maryland, No. 2751 (Md. Ct. Spec. App. Jun. 5, 2012) | View pdf

(June 8, 2012) Jhanelle Graham, Summer Associate.

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In Hayes v. Pratchett, the Court of Special Appeals of Maryland held that a supervisor who committed an affirmative, direct act of negligence toward an employee, which was beyond the scope of his nondelegable employment duties, was not entitled to immunity from a negligence suit under Section 9-509 of the Maryland Labor and Employment Article (“Workers’ Compensation Statute”). The Court concluded that, in this capacity, a supervisor is not acting as an agent of the employer but as a co-employee, subject to personal liability for job-related injuries resulting from his negligence. Consequently, the Court of Special Appeals reversed the judgment of the Circuit Court for Prince George’s County and remanded the case for proceedings not inconsistent with its Opinion.

Daniel Hayes was an employee of BJ’s Wholesale Club (“BJ’s”) in Bowie, Maryland, where Darien Pratchett was his supervisor in the tire center. At approximately 1:40 p.m. on July 26, 2006, Pratchett proceeded to move a customer’s vehicle from a parking space into the tire center. Simultaneously, Hayes, who had just ended his shift, was reversing his vehicle from the parking lot at BJ’s when he and Pratchett collided. Pratchett conceded that the nature of the parking space surrounding the vehicles partially obstructed his vision, preventing him from seeing Hayes as he was reversing. Both vehicles suffered damage.

On August 15, 2006, Hayes signed a release agreement resolving any claims that he might have had against BJ’s arising from the accident. On February 11, 2009, however, Hayes filed a Complaint in the Circuit Court for Prince George’s County asserting a single count of negligence against Pratchett. On October 22, 2010, Pratchett filed a Motion for Summary Judgment, arguing that Hayes was precluded from bringing a civil action against him under the Maryland Workers’ Compensation Statute. Specifically, Pratchett argued that, as a supervisor performing a nondelegable duty of the employer in the course of his employment, he was immune from civil liability. On January 10, 2011, the circuit court granted summary judgment in favor of Pratchett, finding that the sole remedy available to Hayes was under Section 9-509 of the Maryland Workers’ Compensation Statute. Hayes appealed, presenting one issue before the Court of Special Appeals: namely, whether he was statutorily precluded from bringing this tort action in negligence against Pratchett.

In the Court of Special Appeals, Hayes argued that he was entitled to a reversal of the circuit court’s decision because the duty to safely operate a motor vehicle is personal to each driver and not a nondelegable duty of the employer. Moreover, he contended that on the day in question, Pratchett was not acting as a supervisor when he attempted to move the customer’s vehicle but was performing tasks of a subordinate employee. In so doing, Hayes posited that Pratchett was not immune from tort liability under the Workers’ Compensation Statute. By contrast, Pratchett responded that his actions were in accordance with his nondelegable, supervisory duty to “provide a safe work environment for his employees.” He asserted that routine work assignments, such as moving customer vehicles, were aspects of this nondelegable duty for which he could not be held personally liable. Rather, Pratchett contended that, even if negligently performed, any action arising within his supervisory role on behalf of BJ’s entitled him to the benefit of the employer’s immunity.

The Court began its analysis by reiterating that the Maryland Workers’ Compensation Statute requires employers of covered employees to provide compensation for accidental personal injuries sustained by the covered employee regardless of the employer’s fault.LE § 9-501. This immunity from suit may be extended to supervisory employees when the supervisor is performing a nondelegable duty of the employer, even if he negligently performed the employer’s duty. Although the statute precludes tort actions by an employee against his employer, it does not exclude an action in tort between co-employees. Rather, a supervisor is akin to a co-employee when his affirmative act of negligence exceeds the scope of the employer’s nondelegable duty to “provide employees with a safe place to work.” Relying on Athas v. Hill, 300 Md. 133 (1984), the Court stated that a supervisor who commits a direct act of negligence toward an employee is a third party within the meaning of the Workers’ Compensation Statute, subjecting him to tort liability for injuries resulting from his negligence. Thus, according to Athas andHastings v. Mechalske, 336 Md. 663 (1994), a supervisor may only avoid liability under the Workers’ Compensation Statute if he is: (1) performing a nondelegable duty of the employer; and (2) acting within the course of his or her employment.

The Court held that the first prong of the Athas and Hastings test was not met in the instant case and, consequently, Pratchett’s actions did not fall within the ambit of the statute. The Court reasoned that in performing the task of moving the customer’s vehicle, rather than delegating the task to a subordinate employee, Pratchett was no longer acting in his role as a supervisor but was acting as Hayes’s co-employee. The duty of moving customer vehicles was delegable because it was not a duty in which the employer “[was] primarily and absolutely obliged to perform properly.”Hastings, 336 Md. at 676. Thus, the Court found no indication in the record that this was a duty of a supervisor rather than a co-employee in the tire service center. To the contrary, the Court stated that as the driver of a motor vehicle, Pratchett “owe[d] a personal duty of care to all other travelers, including Hayes.” Because this duty is different from the duty of proper supervision that is owed to the employer by a supervisory employee, the Court held that Pratchett’s actions at the time of the accident would not have entitled him to immunity from tort liability under the Workers’ Compensation Statute.