Court of Appeals Holds that Employee Waived Right to Sue Her Employer’s Customers for Personal Injuries
On November 23, 2011, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals decided Brown v. 1301 K St. Ltd. P’ship, No. 09-CV-695, slip op. (D.C. Nov. 23, 2011), which considered the issue of whether a plaintiff-employee waived her right to sue two defendants for alleged personal injuries because, prior to sustaining the alleged injuries, she signed a document disclaiming the right to sue her employer’s customers. The Court of Appeals held that the plaintiff-employee waived her right to sue because the disclaimer of liability was valid, enforceable, and applicable to her claims against the defendants. Id. at 2.
The plaintiff was employed as a security guard by a private security agency and allegedly suffered personal injuries due to a slip-and-fall incident while on assignment at an office building. Id. at 1-2. The plaintiff filed a workers’ compensation claim and subsequently settled the claim with her employer and its insurer. Id. at 2. She then filed a civil action against the owner and property manager of the building where the incident occurred, alleging claims for negligence and violations of federal and local safety statutes. Id. at 3. The defendants moved for summary judgment on the grounds that the plaintiff signed a disclaimer prior to the incident which waived her right to make a claim for personal injuries against her employer’s customers if the injuries were covered by workers’ compensation. Id. The trial court granted summary judgment for the defendants and the Court of Appeals affirmed. Id. at 2.
In affirming, the Court of Appeals rejected the plaintiff’s arguments that the disclaimer was invalid and unenforceable because it waived her right to workers’ compensation, was too general and/or ambiguous, and violated public policy. Id. at 5-12. The Court of Appeals found that the disclaimer did not waive or purport to waive the plaintiff’s right to worker’s compensation, clearly expressed the intent of the parties and therefore was not too general or ambiguous, and did not violate any public policy because it served her employer’s legitimate interest in protecting its customers from liability while allowing compensation to injured employees through workers’ compensation. Id. The Court of Appeals relied on, inter alia, prior case law establishing that, “[a]lthough releases purporting to limit liability for gross negligence, willful acts, or fraud will not be enforced, releases are viable and enforceable when they limit liability for ordinary negligence.” Id. at 12. The Court of Appeals applied that principle not only to the plaintiff’s negligence claim but also to her claims for violations of federal and local safety statutes because the relevance of those statutes was essentially limited to establishing the standard of care. Id. The Court of Appeals also rejected the plaintiff’s argument that the disclaimer did not apply to her case. Id. at 12-17. In rejecting that argument, the Court of Appeals found that the disclaimer applied to her case because the evidence showed that the defendants were her employer’s customers and her injuries were covered by workers’ compensation. Id.