In a recent case involving a serious injury sustained by a “temp” worker, the Pennsylvania Superior Court reaffirmed the principle that only the actual employer of an injured worker bears the benefits and the burdens of the Workers’ Compensation Act. But, in doing so, the court recognized a temporary worker’s right to raise claims against both the temporary services agency that hired her and the workplace where she actually worked.
The injured woman was hired by an agency that supplies temporary employees to businesses. On her second day of employment, she was assigned by the agency to report to work at a factory to operate a punch press. The employee’s right hand was amputated by the punch press while she was working. The agency promptly notified the injured woman that she was entitled to wage and medical benefits. Not satisfied with the weekly amount of wage benefits offered by the agency, the injured woman filed a workers’ compensation claim, naming the factory as her employer.
The factory denied responsibility, claiming that the injured woman was not its employee but was employed only by the agency. At a hearing, the injured woman, the factory, and the agency came to a workers’ compensation benefits settlement in which they agreed that the agency was the employer. As part of the settlement, the parties also agreed to raise the woman’s wage benefit to an amount higher than was originally offered by the agency.
The injured woman then sued the factory for negligence and strict products liability on the ground that the punch press was dangerously defective. In response, the factory claimed that the woman was its employee and was barred by the Workers’ Compensation Act from suing.
The superior court noted that employees are permitted to sue third parties for their work‑related injuries. An employee injured by a dangerous machine can sue the manufacturer if the employer is not the manufacturer. An employee injured on a third party’s property while working for a separate employer can sue the property owner for negligent maintenance of the property. Temporary employees can sue the businesses where they are placed, because they are not employees of those businesses. The court held that the factory could not deny its status as the employer in the workers’ compensation claim and then later raise the defense of employer status in the injured woman’s suit regarding the punch‑press machine.
Businesses sometimes hire temporary workers in order to avoid the many liabilities associated with employment. Properly structured, the use of temporary employees relieves an employer of liability for workers’ compensation benefits, unemployment compensation, and all health insurance and retirement benefits. However, particularly when employers maintain dangerous equipment or have other workplace safety concerns, their use of temporary employees may result in broader liability exposure.
If you are considering hiring temporary employees, you should thoroughly assess your liability as a third party before taking temporary employees into your workplace. If you work as a temporary employee, you have workers’ compensation benefits rights with the agency that pays and places you, and you have separate rights against any third parties whose negligence causes you injury.