ELVIRA R. GONZALEZ et al. v. O & G INDUSTRIES, INC., et al., SC 19377

Judicial District of Hartford

 

      Workers’ Compensation; Whether Trial Court Properly Interpreted General Statutes § 31-291 in Holding that Principal Employer was Immune from Injured Employees’ Civil Suit Because it “Paid Compensation Benefits” to Injured Employees.  The defendant O & G Industries was the general contractor for the construction of a power plant in Middletown.  The plaintiffs James L. Thompson and James McVay were employed by the defendant’s subcontractors.  On February 7, 2010, the plaintiffs were injured in an explosion at the construction site.  They received workers’ compensation benefits for their injuries.  The benefits were provided pursuant to a Contractor Controlled Insurance Program (CCIP), under which the defendant obtained workers’ compensation insurance and provided coverage to its subcontractors’ employees by requiring the subcontractors to enroll in the program.  The plaintiffs brought this personal injury action, alleging that their injuries were caused by the defendant’s negligence.  The defendant moved for summary judgment, claiming that it enjoyed immunity from the plaintiffs’ tort claims because the plaintiffs’ exclusive remedies for their work-related injuries were found in the Workers’ Compensation Act.  The defendant claimed that it was immune from the plaintiffs’ claims because it had “paid compensation benefits” as contemplated by General Statutes § 31-291 of the Act.  Section 31-291 provides that “[t]his section shall not extend immunity to any principal employer from a civil action brought by an injured employee . . . to recover damages resulting from personal injury . . . unless such principal employer has paid compensation benefits under this chapter to such injured employee . . . for the injury . . . which is the subject of the action.”  The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendant, ruling that there was no genuine issue of fact that the defendant had “paid compensation benefits” for purposes of § 31-291.  The court found that that phrase clearly and unambiguously meant “simply to transfer money, either directly to the employee or to a workers’ compensation insurer, in satisfaction of an obligation to provide workers’ compensation benefits.”  The court ruled that there was no issue that the defendant had paid compensation benefits here because, under the CCIP, it had paid the premiums, deductibles and costs for workers’ compensation coverage for the subcontractors’ employees working at the construction site.  The plaintiffs appeal, claiming that summary judgment was improper in light of remaining factual issues as to whether the defendant actually paid for the workers’ compensation insurance, or whether it simply procured the insurance and then recouped its expense from the subcontractors such that the subcontractors ultimately paid for the coverage.  The plaintiffs argue that the trial court wrongly interpreted “paid” in a way contrary to both the plain meaning of that word and the clear legislative intent behind § 31-291.  They contend that the issue of whether the defendant or the subcontractors actually bore the cost of the workers’ compensation benefits paid the plaintiffs remains in hot dispute and that the legislature added the “paid compensation benefits” language to § 31-291 to ensure that immunity from civil suit would not extend to principal employers such as the defendant if they paid very little, or nothing, for that immunity.