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Workers' Compensation

Exclusive Remedy Bars Contribution Claim, But Not Indemnification Claim

An employer ("the employer") determined that it should install special safety mats around a shear cutting machine to eliminate hazards presented when a worker stood too close to the machine. The safety mats functioned by shutting the cutting machine down when a certain amount of pressure was applied to the mats, i.e., when anyone stepped on them. The employer hired a machinery company ("the company") to modify the machine and install the mats.  In spite of the installation an employee's left arm was severed when an employee attempted to clear a jammed piece of metal from the machine.  The employee filed a civil action against multiple parties, including the company, alleging various causes of action, including negligence for failing to properly and adequately repair, maintain and inspect the safety mat system.  In turn, the company filed a third-party complaint against the employer, seeking indemnification and/or contribution.  The employer filed a motion for summary judgment, contending in relevant part that the company's third-party action was barred by the exclusive remedy provisions of the Delaware Workers' Compensation Act.


Here's what the Court decided:

In Thompson v. Murata Wiedemann, Inc., 2010 Del. Super. LEXIS 50 (Feb. 19, 2010), the Superior Court of Delaware, New Castle initially indicated that under Del. Code Ann. tit. 10, § 6302, the right of contribution existed between joint tortfeasors.  The court held, however, that the employer could not be a joint tortfeasor with the company, that the exclusivity provision of Del. Code Ann. tit. 19, § 2304 precluded the assertion of any contribution against it by the company. The exclusivity provision did not, however, bar the company's contractual claim for indemnification against the employer if it could show a breach of contract, express or implied. In Diamond St. Tel. Co. v. University of Del., 269 A.2d 52 ( Del. 1970), the Delaware Supreme Court held that contractors may be liable on a theory of implied indemnity if they breach "an obligation to perform [their] work with due care" [269 A.2d at 57].  Specifically, the Diamond State court identified three factual scenarios where an employer could be liable to a third party for implied indemnity: (1) where the employer creates a dangerous condition on the third party's premises and injury results; (2) where the employer knowingly permits the employee to work under dangerous conditions caused by the third party and injury results; and (3) where the employer activates a latent dangerous condition created by the third party and injury results.  Viewing the record in the light most favorable to the company, the Superior Court indicated that the record was not fully developed, that the court could not rule out the possibility that the company might establish liability under an implied contract.  Summary judgment was, therefore, appropriate only with regard to the contribution claim.  See generally Larson's Workers' Compensation Law, §§ 121.02, 121.05.