NC Workers’ Comp Case Headed for the Supreme Court?

A Florida freight broker has filed a petition for writ of certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court in a case where the North Carolina Court of Appeals ruled the broker had to pay workers’ compensation benefits out of pocket for an injured truck driver whose employer did not have the required insurance. A Florida company, Owen Thomas, Inc., hired Goree Logistics, Inc., a North Carolina motor carrier company, to haul produce shipments. The driver Goree hired, Frances Atiapo, suffered an injury while hauling blueberries for one of Owen Thomas’ clients and attempted to file a workers’ compensation claim. When Atiapo discovered that Goree did not have the state-mandated insurance, she filed an action with the North Carolina Industrial Commission, NCIC, naming Goree and Owen Thomas as defendants. NCIC ruled that Owen Thomas was liable, and ordered the company to pay $4,356.50 in disability benefits as well as $73,165.25 in medical expenses, plus the plaintiff’s legal costs. Owen Thomas appealed, but the North Carolina Court of Appeals affirmed the commission’s decision.

The issue before the Supreme Court, if the court decides to hear the case, will be whether the Federal Aviation Administration Authorization Act preempts enforcement of the state law. Often, federal law will trump state statutes, since the Constitution gives Congress the power to regulate interstate commerce, and federal law sets standards for the entire country. Owen Thomas will try to make the case that the Court of Appeals ruling places an unfair burden on freight brokers, who would be subject to a patchwork of state laws.

The FAAAA does reserve power through the federal government to set standards for common carriers in areas that might affect their price, routes or services. However, Atiapo’s attorneys successfully argued that the state requirement to carry workers’ compensation insurance was not related to price, routes or services. If the Supreme Court reverses the Court of Appeals’ ruling, Goree can be held solely liable for Atiapo’s workers’ compensation benefits. But, first, the Supreme Court must agree that the question is one it wants to hear. The Court could deny certiorari. That would leave the constitutional question unsettled but would have the practical effect of holding Owen Thomas liable.

If you have questions about your rights to workers’ compensation benefits, talk to a knowledgeable North Carolina attorney. Call Lanier Law Group, P.A. today at 919.848.2000 to schedule a free consultation.

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