Employee’s disclaimer of third party tort action against employer’s customers upheld by D.C. Court

In Brown v. 1301 K Street Limited Partnership, No. 09-CV-695 (D.C. Nov. 23, 2011), the D.C. Court of Appeals upheld the validity of a disclaimer signed by a security guard, in which she agreed that her workers' compensation benefits from her employer would be her sole remedy and that she waived any rights she had to make a claim against her employer's customers arising from injuries covered under the Workers' Compensation statutes.

The wording of the disclaimer was as follows:
I understand that state Workers' Compensation statutes cover work-related injuries that may be sustained by me. . . . As a result, and in consideration of Allied Security offering me employment, I hereby waive and forever release any and all rights I may have to:

- make a claim, or

- commence a lawsuit, or

- recover damages or losses

from or against any customer (and the employees of any customer) of Allied Security to which I may be assigned, arising from or related to injuries which are covered under the Workers' Compensation statutes.

The plaintiff had slipped on a wet floor while working as a security guard for Allied Barton Security, which had a contract with the building owner and property manager to provide security services. Plaintiff received a lump sum workers' compensation settlement for her injuries, and then filed suit against the building owner and property manager. In her action, she alleged negligence, OSHA violations, and violation of the D.S. Industrial Safety Act.

The defendants were granted summary judgment on the basis of the above disclaimer, and the plaintiff appealed.

On appeal the plaintiff argued that the disclaimer was invalid because it is an agreement to forego her right to compensation under the D.C. Workers' Compensation Act. The Court rejected that argument, because the disclaimer did not purport to limit in any way the plaintiff's right to compensation under the Act.

The Court also rejected the plaintiff's argument that the disclaimer was too general, finding that the parties' intent is clear from the face of the disclaimer.

The Court rejected the argument that the disclaimer violated public policy. The Court has previously invalidated only a few exculpatory clauses on public policy grounds: an exculpatory clause in a will that excused self-dealing by the personal representative; and an exculpatory clause in a lease the excused the landlord's obligations under the implied warranty of habitability. However, the Court found "nothing violative of public policy in an employer's choice to protect its customers from liability for workplace injuries, choosing instead to compensate its employees itself exclusively through workers' compensation."

Finally, the Court rejected the plaintiff's argument that the disclaimer violated the public policy underlying the OSHA and ISA statutes. The Court noted that those statutes are not strict liability statutes, but are analogous to negligence in that they establish standards of care. "Although 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."

This case illustrates that the Courts are willing to allow businesses to structure their relationships to apportion risk, at least where negligence claims are concerned. Here, the security company may end up paying higher workers' compensation insurance premiums than it would without the disclaimer. On the other hand, the security company can adjust its fee structure to account for its insurance costs.