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COA: Independent contractor's death already compensated

March 23, 2012

The Indiana Court of Appeals has determined that the estate of an independent contractor who fell off a ladder and died was properly compensated through the state workers' compensation act, and the man’s estate cannot later claim that his injuries occurred outside the scope of employment.

In The Estate of Donald Eugene Smith v. Joshua Stutzman d/b/a Keystone Builders, No. 43A01-1103-PL-136, an appellate panel affirmed the judgment of Kosciusko Superior Judge Duane Huffer in dismissing the estate’s lawsuit brought against Keystone Builders.

The case involved Eugene Smith, who worked at Keystone Builders and, in March 2010, fell 20 feet off a ladder, broke his neck and died. The man’s widow and estate later reached an agreement that Smith’s workers’ compensation claim would be settled for a lump-sum payment of $100,000. But in October 2010, the estate filed a complaint against Joshua Stutzman alleging that Smith’s death was a direct result of Stutzman’s negligence in maintaining a safe work premises. Since Smith was an independent contractor and not an official employee, the estate argued that the claim was allowed.

The trial court entered a default judgment against Stutzman, but later determined after a hearing to dismiss the case in Stutzman’s favor because the Worker’s Compensation Board has exclusive jurisdiction.

Applying its own caselaw about workers’ compensation coverage, the appellate panel also relied on Sims v. U.S. Fidelity & Guar. Co., 782 N.E.2d 345, 349-350 (Ind. 2003), where the justices noted that the act’s exclusivity provision bars a court from hearing any common law action brought by an employee for the same injury.

On the issue of whether Smith was an employee or not, the appellate judges noted that the parties expressly agreed to resolve those differences by entering into a settlement agreement.

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