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Sabrina Bowman v. Sunoco

April 25, 2013

SABRINA BOWMAN, APPELLANT
v.
SUNOCO, INC., APPELLEE



Appeal from the Judgment of Superior Court entered December 16, 2009 at No. 1897 EDA 2008 affirming the Order entered May 21, 2008 in the Court of Common Pleas, Philadelphia County, Civil Division at No. 2227 December Term, 2006.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Mr. Justice Eakin

CASTILLE, C.J., SAYLOR, EAKIN, BAER, TODD, McCAFFERY, ORIE MELVIN, JJ.

ARGUED: March 6, 2012

OPINION

Sabrina Bowman appeals from the Superior Court's order affirming the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County, which granted Sunoco's motion for judgment on the pleadings and dismissed appellant's negligence claim. We affirm.

Appellant was employed as a private security guard with Allied Barton Security Services. In exchange for employment, she signed a Workers' Compensation Disclaimer whereby she waived her right to sue Allied's clients for damages related to injuries covered under the Workers' Compensation Act.*fn1 77 P.S. § 1 et seq. Appellant was later injured when she fell on snow or ice while providing security at one of appellee's refineries; she filed a workers' compensation claim and received benefits.*fn2

Thereafter, appellant filed a negligence claim against appellee, alleging its failure to maintain safe conditions caused her injury. After discovery revealed the disclaimer and appellant's receipt of benefits, appellee filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings, stating appellant's claim was barred by the disclaimer.

Appellant argued the disclaimer was void as against public policy; specifically, she argued the disclaimer violated the public policy considerations in § 204(a) of the Workers' Compensation Act. She also asserted the disclaimer improperly waived a cause of action not yet accrued. Section 204(a) provides: "No agreement, composition, or release of damages made before the date of any injury shall be valid or shall bar a claim for damages resulting therefrom; and any such agreement is declared to be against the public policy of this Commonwealth." 77 P.S. § 71(a). The trial court found the disclaimer did not violate the public policy articulated in § 204(a), and granted appellee's motion.

The Superior Court affirmed, agreeing the disclaimer did not violate public policy. Bowman v. Sunoco, Inc., 986 A.2d 883 (Pa. Super. 2009). The court reasoned appellant waived only her right to sue third-party customers for injuries covered by workers' compensation; the release did not attempt to deprive appellant of her rights under the Act, nor was it an attempt to shield Allied from liability or deprive appellant of compensation for work-related harm. Id., at 887.

The Superior Court found no statutory or case law supporting the application of § 204(a) to third-party customers, and reasoned that third-party releases do not divest employees of workers' compensation rights, as do employer releases. Id., at 887-88. The Superior Court noted other jurisdictions have rejected similar arguments, finding no violation of public policy for releasing claims against customers of employers for injuries covered by workers' compensation laws. Id., at 887. The court also found no merit to appellant's argument that a third-party release contravenes an employer's right to subrogation under § 319 of the Act, 77 P.S. § 671, because an employer may choose to waive that right. Bowman, at 888 (citing Kidd-Parker v. Workers' Compensation Appeal Board (Philadelphia School District), 907 A.2d 33, 37 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2006)). Accordingly, the court concluded the third-party release did not undermine public policy considerations in § 204(a) of the Act. Id.

We granted allowance of appeal to determine:

Did the Superior Court, in a decision of first impression and of statewide substantial significance, disregard the public policy of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the plain meaning of the [Pennsylvania Workers'] Compensation Act when it decided that a third party release in the form of a "Worker's Comp Disclaimer" signed in consideration for employment and receipt of compensation benefits, which further required the waiver and eternal release any [sic] and all rights to make a claim, commence a lawsuit, or recover damages or losses is not void against public policy when the language of the disclaimer openly conflicts with the language of section 204(a) of the Pennsylvania Workers['] Compensation Act which expressly renders such agreements as void against public policy?

Bowman v. Sunoco, Inc., 17 A.3d 920-21 (Pa. 2011) (per curiam).

Our review of the Commonwealth Court's decision granting the [appellee's] motion for judgment on the pleadings is limited to whether the court committed an error of law or whether unresolved questions of material fact remained. In reviewing a grant of judgment on the pleadings[,] this Court regards all of the non-moving party's well-pleaded allegations as true, and may consider against that party only those allegations that it has admitted. Since the Commonwealth Court's decision embodies conclusions of law, our scope of ...


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