Imagine dropping your vehicle off with a reputable car dealer for an oil change, and then find yourself getting sued for negligence when that vehicle is involved in an accident. As covered on this site and elsewhere, that is exactly what is happening in Michigan right now. The plaintiff’s lawyers are claiming the car owner was negligent when he turned the keys over to the dealership. What they aren’t saying is they appear to be looking for a way around the exclusive remedy provisions of workers’ compensation, and the outcome of the case could have a dramatic impact on workers, the industry, and individual consumers. 

The Jeep was dropped off with a Rochester Hills, MI dealer for a simple oil change. During that process, a 19-year-old employee, who did not know how to operate a vehicle with a manual transmission, started the vehicle by depressing the clutch and hitting the Start button. He did this while standing outside the vehicle. When he released the clutch, the Jeep, which was left in gear, lurched forward crushing a 42-year-old co-worker against a cabinet. The worker died at the scene. The deceased man’s family is seeking $15,000,000 in damages.

According to WorkCompResearch.com, in Michigan, benefits arising from a compensable death consist of the following:

Funeral Expenses

The amount of benefits is 80% of the after-tax value of the wages the worker was receiving at the time he or she was injured. Section 418.356(2) provides for a minimum benefit rate in death cases. The rate is 50% of the state average weekly wage as of the date of injury. This is one of the few circumstances in which a benefit rate can actually be higher than 80 percent of the after-tax value of the injured worker’s earnings. Coordination of benefits does not apply to death cases. 418.321

Generally, the same principles apply to death cases as to other cases. A major difference is that in death cases there must be a dependent in order to receive wage loss benefits. It sometimes happens that a childless, unmarried worker is killed on the job leaving no dependents. In that case, his or her estate receives a burial allowance not to exceed $6,000.

In the event benefits are awarded beyond that $6,000 burial allowance, there is a 500-week cap in place for the state.

It is not clear whether the deceased had children or what benefits have been paid, but we do know that subrogation liens have already been filed in the event the lawsuit is successful. We also know that a related decision involving the case has ordered the dealer to indemnify the car owner in the event he is found liable for the workers’ death. In other words, the dealership, which could not be sued by the family due to exclusive remedy provisions of workers’ compensation, may still be on the hook if they must protect the innocent sap who simply wanted his oil changed. 

Looks as though Michigan’s exclusive remedy provision is about to become an elusive remedy at best. This case appears simply to be an end run around current workers’ compensation laws in the state.

The dealer, for its part, is trying to get the indemnification order overturned, which would of course leave their customer fully exposed should a jury decide he was negligent for getting his oil changed.

While we certainly can sympathize with the family of a man killed in a tragic accident, there is much more at risk here than one single lawsuit. If this suit is successful, the concept of exclusive remedy, and more importantly, the no-fault concept of workers’ comp that it supports, could become a thing of the past. A new path to negligence claims could be established, where any path to the money becomes the road people follow, with the very tenets of a system established to protect workers being eroded in the process.

Although not pertinent in this particular case, no one ever wants to talk about the fact that many workplace injuries are the result of a worker’s own actions, and that the no-fault provisions of workers’ comp have been the path to quick and (for comparative purposes to the tort system) effective treatment when they are injured. Once employers can in effect be found negligent and held responsible for tort damages, that push for assigning fault will find its way back to future injuries elsewhere. After all, both sides of a coin dropped will fall to the same floor. They are inexorably linked to the same mechanism. You can’t drop one side without affecting the other.

It is a frightening enough concept that we now can be on the hook – that we can actually be considered “negligent” – as consumers for simply doing something as simple as dropping off our car for service. But it is worse than that. If you destroy the protections that exclusive remedy provides, you will degrade the no-fault provisions that afford many workers benefits today that they would otherwise be denied. 

For that reason alone, this suit must fail. Exclusive remedy must not be allowed to become an elusive affair.

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