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FRED M. HECKENDORN AND MARY ANNE HECKENDORN v. CONSOLIDATED RAIL CORPORATION (09/15/83)

SUPREME COURT OF PENNSYLVANIA


decided: September 15, 1983.

FRED M. HECKENDORN AND MARY ANNE HECKENDORN, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
CONSOLIDATED RAIL CORPORATION, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT, V. EVANS PRODUCTS COMPANY, ADDITIONAL DEFENDANT, AND THE CARNATION COMPANY, ADDITIONAL DEFENDANT-APPELLEE

No. 28 E.D. Appeal Dkt. 1982, Appeal of Consolidated Rail Corporation from Order of Superior Court entered October 9, 1981, at No. 2177 Philadelphia 1980, affirming Order of Court of Common Pleas of Cumberland County entered August 25, 1980, at No. 3781 Civil 1979, Roberts, C.j., and Nix, Larsen, Flaherty, McDermott, Hutchinson and Zappala, JJ. Larsen, J., joins this opinion in part and files a concurring opinion.

Author: Roberts

[ 502 Pa. Page 103]

OPINION OF THE COURT

At issue on this appeal is whether, in an action brought by an injured employee against a third-party tortfeasor, the employer, although statutorily immune from liability, may nonetheless be joined by the third party for the purpose of apportioning the employer's negligence with the negligence of the third party. Both the trial court and the Superior Court held joinder of the employer as a defendant for any purpose to be barred by section 303 of the Workers' Compensation Act. We granted allowance of appeal and now affirm.

In November of 1979, Fred M. Heckendorn, an employee of appellee Carnation Company, and his wife filed a complaint in trespass against appellant Consolidated Rail Corporation (Conrail) and Evans Products Company alleging that on August 22, 1977, while in the course of his employment, Heckendorn had been struck and injured by a falling bulkhead door, manufactured by Evans, as he was loading a

[ 502 Pa. Page 104]

    railroad boxcar owned by appellant Conrail and leased to Carnation. When Conrail attempted to join Carnation as an additional defendant, Carnation filed preliminary objections to the joinder. The Court of Common Pleas of Cumberland County sustained the preliminary objections, and the Superior Court affirmed. 293 Pa. Super. 474, 439 A.2d 674 (1981). This appeal by allowance followed.

Section 303 of the Workers' Compensation Act provides:

"(a) The liability of an employer under this act shall be exclusive and in place of any and all other liability to such employes, his legal representative, husband or wife, parents, dependents, next of kin or anyone otherwise entitled to damages in any action at law or otherwise on account of any injury or death as defined in section 301(c)(1) and (2) [77 P.S. § 411(1)(2)] or occupational disease as defined in section 108 [77 P.S. § 27.1].

(b) In the event injury or death to an employe is caused by a third party, then such employe, his legal representative, husband or wife, parents, dependents, next of kin, and anyone otherwise entitled to receive damages by reason thereof, may bring their action at law against such third party, but the employer, his insurance carrier, their servants and agents, employes, representatives acting on their behalf or at their request shall not be liable to a third party for damages, contribution, or indemnity in any action at law, or otherwise, unless liability for such damages, contributions or indemnity shall be expressly provided for in a written contract entered into by the party alleged to be liable prior to the date of the occurrence which gave rise to the action."

Act of December 5, 1974, P.L. 782, No. 263, as amended, 77 P.S. § 481 (Supp.1983).

In Tsarnas v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp., 488 Pa. 513, 412 A.2d 1094 (1980), this Court sustained the constitutionality of section 303(b) and concluded that section 303(b) was intended by the Legislature to prohibit the joinder of an employer as an additional defendant in employee actions against third-party tort-feasors:

[ 502 Pa. Page 105]

"Prior to the passage of Section 303(b), our law permitted the joinder of the employer as an additional defendant in a suit by an employee against a third party tortfeasor on the basis of joint liability or liability over. If it were determined that both the employer and the third party were responsible for the employee's injury, the employee could obtain a full recovery from the third party, but the third party could also obtain contribution or indemnity from the employer to the extent of the employer's statutory liability under the Workers' Compensation Act. [Citations omitted.]

Section 303(b) creates an exception to the general right to contribution from joint tortfeasors. Under that section, a third party whose negligence is responsible, in part, for an injury suffered by an employee protected by the Workmen's Compensation Act, may not, in the suit brought by the employee against him, join the employer as an additional defendant. Nor may the third party otherwise seek contribution or indemnity from the employer, even though the employer's own negligence may have been the primary cause of the injury."

488 Pa. at 517-18, 412 A.2d at 1096. See Bell v. Koppers Co., 481 Pa. 454, 392 A.2d 1380 (1978); Kelly v. Carborundum Co., 307 Pa. Super. 361, 453 A.2d 624 (1982); Arnold v. Borbonus, 257 Pa. Super. 110, 390 A.2d 271 (1978); Hefferin v. Stempkowski, 247 Pa. Super. 366, 372 A.2d 869 (1977).*fn1

[ 502 Pa. Page 106]

Appellant concedes that section 303(b) bars joinder of an employer for the purpose of establishing liability but contends that the Comparative Negligence Act, Act of April 28, 1978, P.L. 202, No. 53, as amended, 42 Pa.C.S. § 7102, which was enacted subsequent to section 303(b), reflects a legislative intent to permit joinder of an employer as an additional defendant for the purpose of apportioning fault. In fact, the Comparative Negligence Act reflects a precisely opposite intent, one which is entirely consistent with the legislative grant of immunity to employers in employee actions against third-party tortfeasors.

The Comparative Negligence Act provides that a plaintiff may recover damages whenever his negligence is not greater than the negligence of the " defendants against whom recovery is sought, " and that, "[w]here recovery is allowed against more than one defendant, each defendant shall be liable for . . . damages in the ratio of the amount of his causal negligence to the amount of causal negligence attributed to all defendants against whom recovery is allowed." 42 Pa.C.S. § 7102 (emphasis supplied). The Workers' Compensation Act provides that "[t]he liability of an employer under this act shall be exclusive" and that the employer

[ 502 Pa. Page 107]

"shall not be liable to a third party for damages, contribution or indemnity in any action at law, or otherwise . . . ." 77 P.S. § 481 (Supp.1983).

The Superior Court properly concluded that the two provisions not only are reconcilable but "can be read in full and complete harmony." 293 Pa. Super. at 480-81, 439 A.2d at 677. As related statutes must be read in pari materia, 1 Pa.C.S. § 1932, and the Workers' Compensation Act provides that "[a]n employer is one against whom recovery can neither be 'sought' nor 'allowed,'" 293 Pa. Super. at 480, 439 A.2d at 677, it is clear that in the Comparative Negligence Act "the legislature did not contemplate an apportionment of liability between one or more third party tortfeasors (against whom recovery may be had) and the plaintiff's employer (against whom recovery may neither be sought nor allowed)." Id. See Kelly v. Carborundum Co., supra, 307 Pa. Super. at 367, 453 A.2d at 627. See also Jones v. Carborundum Co., 515 F.Supp. 559 (W.D.Pa.1981).*fn2

[ 502 Pa. Page 108]

Thus, in a case where the factfinder determines that an injured employee's total damages are $100,000, the negligent third party is liable to the employee for the full amount of the judgment, a result in accord with the longstanding common-law principle that one joint tortfeasor's immunity from liability does not relieve the other tortfeasor of full liability. See Restatement (Second) of Torts § 880 (1979). There is no possibility that an injured employee will recover an amount in excess of his damages, for pursuant to 77 P.S. § 671, "[w]here the compensable injury is caused in whole or in part by the act or omission of a third party, the employer shall be subrogated to the right of the employee . . . against such third party to the extent of the compensation payable under this article [(77 P.S. § 411 et seq.)] by the employer." Thus, if the employer has already paid $20,000 in workers' compensation to his employee, the employer is entitled to receive $20,000 of the $100,000 judgment, less a proportionate share of "reasonable attorneys' fees and other proper disbursements incurred in obtaining a recovery or in effecting a compromise settlement." Id.

The employer's statutory right to subrogation may not be challenged by an allegation that the employer was partially responsible for the employee's injury.*fn3 Under the terms of the Workers' Compensation Act, whenever an employee is injured in the course of employment, the employer pays compensation, regardless of whether the employer, the employee, or a third party was causally negligent. If the negligence of a third-party tortfeasor is subsequently determined to have caused the injury "in whole or in part," the employee is entitled to recover the full amount of his damages from the tortfeasor, subject to the employer's right to reimbursement for the workers' compensation payments

[ 502 Pa. Page 109]

    made as a result of the injury. The issue of the employer's negligence is as irrelevant at the subrogation stage of the proceedings as it is at trial, and as it is in every case of employee injury in which no third-party tortfeasor is involved.

The Workers' Compensation Act demonstrates a clear legislative intent that in cases where a party other than the employer is responsible in whole or in part for an employee's injury, the employee may recover full compensation for his injury from the negligent third party, subject to the employer's right of subrogation, through an action in trespass, in which the employer may not be involuntarily joined for any purpose. As the Superior Court properly read the Comparative Negligence Act to be consistent with this legislative intent, the order of the Superior Court affirming the order of the Court of Common Pleas of Cumberland County, which sustained appellee Carnation's preliminary objections to involuntary joinder, is affirmed.*fn4

Order affirmed.

LARSEN, Justice, concurring.

[ 502 Pa. Page 110]

I join with the majority except to point out that subrogation rights are always subject to equitable principles. See Bigley v. Unity Auto Parts, Inc., 496 Pa. 262, 274, 436 A.2d 1172, 1178 (1981); Dale Manufacturing Co. v. Bressi, 491 Pa. 493, 496, 421 A.2d 653, 654 (1980). Thus, the employer's right to subrogation is not automatic and some judicial proceeding must be had in order for the employer's lack or degree of fault to be established. See Tsarnas v. Jones & Page 110} Laughlin Steel Corporation, 488 Pa. 513, 412 A.2d 1094 (1980) (Larsen, J., concurring).


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