Appeals Court rules Robeson sheriff, DOT contractor liable for deputy’s injuries

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  • The Robeson County Sheriff's Office and a private Department of Transportation contractor bear joint responsibility for an injured deputy's medical bills. That's according to a ruling Tuesday from the state Court of Appeals.
  • The unanimous ruling reversed part of an earlier decision from the North Carolina Industrial Commission. The commission would have held the sheriff's office responsible for deputy Stephen Lassiter's injuries, while omitting contractor Truesdell Corporation.
  • Judge Jefferson Griffin noted that the case has the potential to set a precedent for law enforcement officers injured while performing off-duty work.

The North Carolina Court of Appeals has determined that both the Robeson County Sheriff’s Office and a private Department of Transportation contractor bear responsibility for a deputy’s injuries during traffic duty in 2019.

The decision Tuesday reverses part of an earlier ruling from the state Industrial Commission. Commissioners would have held the sheriff’s office solely responsible for paying the deputy’s ongoing medical expenses.

Writing for a unanimous three-judge panel, Appeals Court Judge Jefferson Griffin noted the case’s potential to set a precedent.

“Our appellate courts have yet to address whether a law enforcement officer, working off duty as a traffic control officer, is an independent contractor excluded from coverage under the Workers’ Compensation Act; or whether he is to be considered an employee of the law enforcement agency for which he is primarily employed, an employee of the private corporation for which he is providing traffic control services, or a joint employee of both,” Griffin wrote.

In March 2019, sheriff’s deputy Stephen Matthew Lassiter was off-duty when a sheriff’s captain offered him a chance to work traffic duty for a DOT bridge preservation project along Interstate 95. Lassiter accepted.

While performing that duty, under the captain’s supervision, Lassiter “was struck by a vehicle and sustained injuries to his head, arms, hands, and legs,” Griffin wrote. “Due to the severity of injuries, Plaintiff was airlifted to a hospital in Florence, South Carolina. Plaintiff underwent extensive treatment and two subsequent surgeries.”

Seeking worker’s compensation in April 2019, Lassiter listed both the sheriff’s office and the contractor, the Truesdell Corporation, as his employers at the time of the injury. Both the sheriff and the contractor “denied the existence of employment,” Griffin wrote.

In November 2022 the Industrial Commission determined that Lassiter worked for the sheriff’s office but not Truesdell.

Griffin and his fellow Appeals Court judges rejected the argument that Lassiter was working as an independent contractor.

“Here, we recognize Plaintiff was, at the time of his injury, acting as a law enforcement officer, conducting traffic duty — an official duty of law enforcement officers,” Griffin wrote. “In so doing, Plaintiff retained his official status as he was neither acting solely on behalf of a private entity nor engaged in some private business of his own. Further, evidence at the hearing indicated Plaintiff was hired on the basis of his official status as a police officer, as required by Truesdell’s contract with NCDOT, and while undoubtably benefitting Truesdell by performing traffic duty, Plaintiff was also serving and protecting the safety of the community.”

“Plaintiff did not have the independent use of his skill, knowledge, or training as a law enforcement officer,” Griffin added. “He was required to comply with instruction from both Truesdell and RCSO.” Law enforcement supervisors “were relayed instructions through Truesdell who indicated to them the way in which traffic should flow and the number of officers approved to complete the service.”

Appellate judges diverged from the Industrial Commission on Truesdell’s responsibility in the case. “Plaintiff here was not under any express contract of employment with Truesdell. However, record evidence reflects the existence of an implied contract,” Griffin wrote. “We acknowledge Truesdell was not responsible for training Plaintiff, but Truesdell did hire, pay, and supervise Plaintiff.”

Griffin noted Truesdell’s oversight role. “Notably, Plaintiff was not originally scheduled to work on the date of his accident,” according to the Appeals Court opinion. Law enforcement supervisors “after consulting the plan and recommended officer count offered by Truesdell, believed there needed to be additional officers on site.”

They “contacted Truesdell to ask permission before calling Plaintiff to request his assistance in traffic control work. This indicates a consistent level of supervision or control which Truesdell had over the officers; if Truesdell had rejected the request for an additional officer or refused to present the idea to NCDOT, Plaintiff would not have been on the scene the night of his injury,” Griffin wrote.

The new decision featured a different take on the “joint employment doctrine” than the state Appeals Court had adopted in an earlier case, Whicker v. Compass Group USA. In that case, the court had rejected a claim of joint employment because the two employers engaged in different types of work.

“We recognize, instead, the joint employee doctrine specifically states the service being performed by the plaintiff for each employer must be the same or closely related to the service for the other, not that the nature of the work of each employer had to be the same or closely related,” Griffin explained. “For, if we were to accept the Court’s interpretation in Whicker, we would be effectively prohibiting, at a minimum, any off-duty law enforcement officer performing traffic duty from recovering from the company for which he was performing traffic duty, regardless of whether an express or implied contract existed, unless the officer was performing traffic duty for a private company whose business was also performing traffic duty.”

“Here, Plaintiff was, at the time of his injury: a single employee; under a contract of employment with both RCSO and Truesdell; under the simultaneous control of both RCSO and Truesdell; and performing a service similar to the service he performed for RCSO when performing traffic duty for Truesdell,” Griffin concluded. “Thus, we hold Plaintiff was jointly employed by both RCSO and Truesdell at the time of his injury.”

Judge Hunter Murphy and Toby Hampson joined Griffin’s opinion.