State Supreme Court blocks ruling on liability for Robeson deputy’s injuries

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  • The state Supreme Court has blocked a lower court's ruling in a dispute involving legal liability for a Robeson County deputy sheriff's off-duty injuries.
  • A unanimous state Court of Appeals panel agreed that the Robeson sheriff's office and a private Department of Transportation contractor shared responsibility for the injuries the deputy suffered in 2019.
  • Truesdell Corporation, the contractor, argued in court filings that the Appeals Court rewrote a legal test for determining whether the company should be forced to fund some of the deputy's medical expenses.

The state Supreme Court issued a temporary stay Monday in a case involving legal liability for a Robeson County deputy sheriff’s injuries during traffic work.

The state Court of Appeals ruled in December that the sheriff’s office and a private state Department of Transportation contractor bore joint responsibility for the deputy’s injuries in 2019.

The contractor, Truesdell Corporation, asked the state’s highest court to block that ruling. “Defendants Truesdell contend the Court of Appeals departed from the precedent set by our appellate courts for determining whether an employer qualifies as a joint-employer or whether no employer/employee relationship exists,” the company’s lawyers wrote on March 4.

“When a ‘general employer’ lends an employee to a ‘special employer,’  the special employer becomes liable for workers’ compensation benefits only if (1) the employee has a made a contract of hire, express or implied, with the special employer, (2) the work being done is essentially that of the special employer, and (3) the special employer has the right to control the details of the work,” according to the court filing. “The test includes specifically that the ‘work being done is essentially that of the special employer.’”

“The Court of Appeals, however, departed from this test. The Court of Appeals concluded that while Plaintiff, at the time of his injury, was not performing the same nature of work as that of Defendant-Truesdell, this requirement ‘is not required to show joint employment under the joint employment doctrine.’ The Court of Appeals changed the test, reversed the Full Commission’s proper application of the test, and found Defendant-Truesdell liable for half of Plaintiff’s medical and indemnity expenses when Defendant-Truesdell was not an employer of Plaintiff,” Truesdell’s lawyers wrote.

The Appeals Court decision reversed 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.”

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