If a Washington resident who works for an Idaho company is hurt on a Washington company's Idaho job site, can that worker sue the Washington business in the Evergreen state?
The Washington state Supreme Court says yes, after reviewing a case involving an injured worker who sued a Spokane-based general contractor for negligence after filing for and receiving worker's compensation benefits from the state of Idaho.
What remains to be decided now, as the case is returned to lower courts, is the question of whether Washington or Idaho laws on job-site worker safety apply in the lawsuit brought by a Washington resident Delbert Williams against Spokane-based general contractor Leone & Keeble Inc.
Williams was an employee of Paycheck Connection LLC, a Coeur d'Alene company providing labor services, who regularly sent him to work for Pro-Set Erectors Inc., a Hayden Lake-based construction company.
In 2007, Pro-Set was a subcontractor for Leone & Keeble on a school remodeling project in Idaho. On Aug. 3 of that year, while installing a roof strut, Williams lost his balance and fell 35 feet, striking a steel wall brace on the way down and suffering severe injuries to his legs and back, court documents say.
Williams reported his injuries to the Idaho State Insurance Fund, which accepted the claim and began issuing workers' compensation payments to Williams. The payments reportedly stopped in September 2008. Williams filed suit against Leone & Keeble in Spokane County Superior Court in July 2008 in a tort action.
In the trial court, Leone & Keeble's counsel filed a motion to dismiss the case based on jurisdictionasserting that Idaho should have jurisdiction because the plaintiff had received Idaho worker's compensation. The trial court judge granted the motion to dismiss, and a state appellate court panel here upheld that decision.
Three weeks ago, the Washington state Supreme Court overturned the lower courts' decisions, saying they "incorrectly held that Spokane County Superior Court lacked jurisdiction over a tort claim filed in Washington by a Washington resident against a Washington corporation."
It said in its ruling "that the location of the injury is not necessarily determinative."
The court also said that while Williams conceded he was injured during the course of his employment, he wasn't bringing his claim against his employer.
Rather, it says, Williams filed against a third-party Washington general contractor for negligence.
"That cause of action is allowed under Washington's Industrial Insurance Act," its decision said. "Further, even under Idaho law, the benefits Williams received from the Idaho State Insurance Fund would not have preclusive effect on his claim."
After determining that Washington courts do have jurisdiction in the matter, the higher court returned the case to lower courts to determine the issue of which state's laws apply.
Attorney Andrew Bohrnsen, who is representing Leone & Keeble, says, "The (trial) judge had said in passing if it weren't for the jurisdictional ruling, 'I would apply Idaho law.'"
However, Bohrnsen says the trial judge didn't elaborate in writing while granting the motion to dismiss based on jurisdiction, so the case will likely go back to the trial court. "In my mind, the appellate court doesn't have the benefit of the trial court's reasoning on the choosing of Washington or Idaho law."
This is important, Bohrnsen says, because Washington and Idaho laws "are significantly different" as they apply to whether there is negligence on a job site.
In Idaho, if a court determines that a worker is injured in the course of employment, under Idaho law, "a third-party contractor is generally immune to suit by an injured employee of its subcontractor," the Washington state high court ruling says.
Richard McKinney, attorney for Williams, asserts that the higher court agreed with his argument that Williams would have no recourse had he filed a lawsuit in Idaho.
"In my opinion, and I think the Supreme Court agreed with me, that had he sued in Idaho, he'd have no remedy," because of the Idaho statute, McKinney says.
"The next successive question is, once Washington has jurisdiction, do they apply Idaho law or Washington law, or a mixture," where the two states have conflicting laws on this matter, McKinney adds. "It will go back to the trial court no matter what."
Although the mixture of Washington and Idaho interests tied into the case is provoking questions, Bohrnsen says it's a situation that will be seen from time to time, "given the proximity of Spokane and Idaho state lines. It's a state's interest question."
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