The Minnesota Court of Appeals recently issued an unpublished decision confirming that employees are precluded from bringing a negligence claim against parties engaging in a “common enterprise” with their employer when the employee sustains a work-related injury arising out of and in the course and scope of their employment with that employer.
In Schirmers vs. County of Anoka, the court addressed injuries to a plaintiff arising out of a training exercise held at Anoka County Firearms Range. No. 02-CV-13-1273 (Minn. Ct. App. July 20, 2015) (unpublished). Of note, the firearms range was operated by defendant Anoka County on behalf of the Anoka County Joint Law Enforcement Counsel. Plaintiff’s employer, the City of Lino Lakes, was a member of the counsel. At issue in the case was whether Anoka County and the City of Lino Lakes were engaged in a “common enterprise.”
By way of background, the Workers’ Compensation Act provides that when an employer and a third party are engaged in “furtherance of a common enterprise,” the employee who sustains injuries during employment arising out of that purported common enterprise must choose between receiving workers’ compensation benefits from the employer or seeking damages in a common-law negligence action against a third party. This common-enterprise doctrine bars a civil negligence claim when three factors are satisfied: 1) the employers must be engaged in the same project, 2) the employees must be working together in a common activity, and 3) the employees are working together in a fashion that they are subject to the same or similar hazards.
In addressing the three factors in this case, the court noted that the firearms range being used for training could constitute a common project. The court also noted that the broader law enforcement collaboration contemplated by a joint-powers agreement between the entities could also constitute a common project.
With respect to a common activity, the court noted that a common activity can exist when two employee groups work in close proximity and regularly coordinate their work. In considering whether a common activity occurred, the court noted that a close relationship between the employers can affect a determination on this issue. The court noted that the City’s firearm’s instructor had interacted with the county’s range master and the range master had authority to veto the training exercise that lead to the injuries. Moreover, the range master has observed portions of the training exercise at issue. The court determined that the county and city were members of a counsel that had collaborated to provide law-enforcement training, the city had used the firearms range as a function of the counsel membership with the county employee admitting the city employee’s to the range, a city employee had reviewed the training plan with the county employee before leading the training exercise, a county employee periodically observed the training exercise at issue, and a city employee had immediately notified a county employee of the injury at issue. As such, the court concluded that the city and county employees were working together in a common activity while also noting that the long-standing relationship between the city and county had been formalized by a joint-powers agreement.
Regarding the third common enterprise factor, the court determined that the record showed that a county employee had been exposed to the same general risk of injury related to the discharge of rifles and handguns intermittently throughout the training exercise. Accordingly, the Minnesota Court of Appeals reversed the district court’s decision to deny summary judgment to the defendant.
In addition to providing an outline for analyzing the common enterprise doctrine in Minnesota, this case serves as a reminder of the importance of building a detailed factual record early in a case. The court expressly noted that “[t]he context of this case does not fit neatly into Minnesota case law analyzing the common-enterprise doctrine” before proceeding to apply the relevant factors to the record before it and making its determinations. If the parties had not engaged in discovery obtaining detailed accounts of the events leading up to the plaintiff’s injuries as well as thoroughly exploring the relationship between the defendants, this case may have proceeded to trial regardless of the underlying common enterprise doctrine bar to any recovery against the third party-defendant. As such, all parties in matters involving workers’ compensation injuries and potential civil lawsuit exposure should be careful to perform detailed case investigations.
If you have any questions about the latest developments regarding third-party liability related to work place injuries or any other workers’ compensation matter, please contact one of the many experienced attorneys at Hansen Dordell by phone or email – www.hansendordell.com/651-482-8900.