Fla. Stat. 440.11(1) provides an exception to the civil immunity granted to both employers and coemployees by the workers’ compensation law when a coemployee either acts with gross negligence or is employed by the same employer, but is assigned primarily to unrelated works within the employment. What constitutes “unrelated works” has been the subject of enormous judicial labor. In Taylor v. School Board of Brevard County, 888 So. 2d 1 (Fla. 2004), the Florida Supreme Court attempted to reconcile the opinions of all of the District Courts which diverged on how to define the unrelated works exception. In that case, the Court concluded that the unrelated works exception had to be interpreted narrowly:
“That the exception of the scheme for unrelated
works should be applied only when it can clearly
be demonstrated that a fellow employee whose
actions caused the injury was engaged in works
unrelated to the duties of the injured employee.”
Id. at Page 5.
Unfortunately, the Supreme Court in Taylor provided little guidance as to how their mandate was to be applied. The Legislature gave even less guidance in the statute itself. That led to differing interpretations among the District Courts and ultimately brought the question before the Supreme Court again in Aravena v. Miami-Dade County, 31 Fla. L. Weekly S205 (Fla. April 6, 2006). That case, in an opinion authored by Chief Justice Pariente, reviews the rocky course of attempted interpretation of the unrelated works exception by all of the courts including the Supreme Court and gives needed guidance to the Courts as to when this exception applies.
The Aravena case arose out of a wrongful death action brought on behalf of a school crossing guard who died when lights at a crossing malfunctioned and resulted in a two car collision where one of the cars left the roadway and killed the decedent. Suit was brought on behalf of her survivors against Miami-Dade County, which employed the decedent as well as those who maintained the lights. After a jury verdict in favor of the plaintiff, the Third District reversed and remanded for entry in favor of the defendant based upon its interpretation of Taylor, supra. The Supreme Court reversed and reinstated the verdict.
The facts showed that the crossing guard worked for the County’s police department while the traffic signal personnel worked for the Department of Public Works, at different locations. The employees were not supervised by the same individuals and did not have similar duties. The crossing guards did not interact with the mechanics who maintained the signals and the responsibilities of the crossing guard to shepherd school children across the street had nothing to do with the appropriate regulation of traffic lights.
In reversing the trial court, the Third District looked at the big picture, opining that the traffic signal repair personnel’s responsibility was to regulate cars and pedestrians and to appropriately repair the traffic lights while the school crossing guard’s responsibility was to regulate the same vehicles and people at the same intersection where the defective light was located. The Third District concluded it could not be said that the two jobs clearly demonstrated that they were unrelated or that the employees were working on entirely different projects.
The Third District’s interpretation is understandable. In Taylor, the Supreme Court concluded that a school bus driver and a school bus mechanic were not engaged in unrelated works because they “shared a common goal of providing safe transportation to the students.” Taylor at Page 6.
Recognizing the Supreme Court’s interpretation in Taylor might be misinterpreted too restrictively, the Avavena majority felt it was time to set out clearer instructions to the courts as to how to apply this workers’ compensation exception. At Page 208, the Court states:
“We conclude that the phrase ‘assigned primarily
to unrelated works’ in section 440.11(1) has
both an operational and a locational component.
Thus, where coemployees are assigned primarily
to different departments and different locations,
and are assigned primarily to different job
functions, the fact that the coemployees may
have some broad overlapping responsibilities
is not dispositive.
Although we stated in Taylor that ‘we could not
hope to contemplate the myriad of factual
circumstances’ that might arise in applying
the unrelated works exception, 888 So. At 5,
a review of the district court decisions shows
common factors used in the analysis of the
applicability of the unrelated works exception.
These include: (1) whether the coemployees
work at the same location; (2) whether the
coemployees must cooperate as a team to
accomplish a specific mission; (3) the size
of the employer; (4) whether the
coemployees have similar job duties,
(5) whether the coemployees have the same
supervisor; and (6) whether the coemployees
work with the same equipment.
In a case such as this one, in which the
coemployees do not work at the same
location, it is more likely that the coemployees
will be considered to be assigned primarily
to unrelated works. However, in making
this determination the courts should also
consider whether the coemployees must
cooperate as a team to further a specific
mission of the employer, not whether they
further the same general mission of the
employer. In deciding whether coemployees
must cooperate as a team to further a
specific mission of the employer, it may
be helpful to look to the last four factors
enumerated above; the size of the
employer and whether the coemployees
work with the same equipment, have the
same supervisor, or have similar duties.
Further, although we recognize that when
employees work at the same location, it is
more likely that they will not be considered
to be assigned primarily to unrelated works,
we caution that in those circumstances, the
courts must also consider whether the
work being performed is part of a team
effort. Clearly, as Justice Lewis observed,
a large university that has thousands of
employees across many acres warrants
different consideration than a small, single-
structured location such as an elementary
school, where everyone from teachers to
custodial staff may be considered part of
the same team. See Taylor, 888 So. 2d at
15 (Lewis, J., concurring in result only).”
This road map gives clearer instructions to the courts as to how to apply the unrelated works exception to the workers’ compensation law. This step by step analysis, while still necessarily imperfect, allows courts to review the myriad fact situations which could apply to this question in a more structured analysis than was provided by the Legislature.
Originally published in June 2006