Eight acrobats who suffered life-altering injuries in a 2014 circus accident in which they fell 20 feet while hanging from their hair reached a $52 million settlement last month with the owner of the arena where it occurred. Notably, the Florida-based circus that employed them was not named as a defendant in that case.
As our South Florida injury lawyers can explain, much of that has to do with the fact that state workers’ compensation laws stipulate that workers’ comp insurance is the exclusive remedy against an employer for work-related injuries. That doesn’t necessarily mean people who are seriously injured on-the-job don’t have alternative claims against third parties. This type of claim is more common in hazardous professions like construction, truck driving, warehousing, nursing, etc., where workers are often contracted to work at that location by another company.
What Went Wrong at the Circus – and Who Was Responsible
As reported by The New York Times, he claim was against the Rhode Island owner/operator of the arena where the performance took place. The so-called “hanging hair act” was witnessed by an estimated 4,000 people. The aerialists, who appeared to be suspended by only their hair around a large circle cone, hanging from the rigging. But no sooner did the announcer say, “Suspended by only the strength of – ” the whole apparatus holding the performers came suddenly tumbling to the ground.
As it turned out, the carabiner used to hold the women failed after being overloaded. The manufacturer’s rating promises it can hold up to 10,000 pounds. At the time of the accident, it was holding 10,400 pounds.
As our South Florida injury lawyers know, whether we’re talking about a construction site or the circus, there are certain safety standards that must be in place – for every job, every time. An investigation by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) revealed those measures weren’t taken. The Florida-based parent company of the performers’ employer was fined $7,000 – the maximum fine allowable by statute.
OSHA’s report revealed the other failure was a lack of “redundancy” in the safety system. In other words, with a job like this that is very dangerous and potentially fatal, there should be a backup plan. Say, for instance, a safety net. That didn’t happen here, so when the performers fell, they hit the ground. Furthermore, OSHA did not uncover any documents indicating that the rigging that was supporting the performers was checked by an engineer for structural adequacy. That alone is a serious flaw, but combined with other violations, it proved tragic – and preventable.
When Third-Party Liability Applies for Florida Work Injuries
As mentioned earlier, workers’ compensation is most likely going to be the only recourse you have for an employer – even if they were negligent. Workers’ compensation is the “grand bargain” tradeoff wherein as long as you can show your injury happened in the course and scope of employment, you don’t have to prove anyone was negligent and you can still (in theory) expect to be compensated relatively quickly for medical bills, lost wages, etc.
The problem with workers’ compensation for those who are seriously injured is that it isn’t likely to cover the full extent of your damages. It doesn’t cover things like pain and suffering, loss of life enjoyment, emotional pain and suffering, loss of consortium (brought by your spouse), etc. So if there is a possibility that a third party was negligent in causing the accident or exacerbating the injury, it’s something we want to help our clients explore.
A couple of other examples in which we may see this:
- A person driving for work is struck by a distracted driver. The distracted driver could be named as a third-party defendant.
- A construction worker employed by a subcontractor is injured at a job site after falling on an oil slick. The owner/operator of the building may be held liable as a third-party defendant.
It should be noted that when an injured employee prevails in a third-party negligence lawsuit, the employer’s workers’ compensation insurer may have something called “subrogation interest.” Basically, if workers’ compensation has already paid most of your medical bills, the compensation you get from the third party lawsuit for medical bills rightfully belongs to the workers’ compensation insurer. The injured employee then gets the remainder.