In March 2012, a 2-1 Superior Court panel rendered a decision in the construction accident case of Patton v. Worthington Associates, Inc., 43 A.3d 479 (Pa.Super. 2012), that for practical purposes has eviscerated the statutory employer doctrine in Pennsylvania. A number of weeks later, I strolled back from court to my office with plaintiff counsel in our own construction accident tort case; his reliance on Patton had resulted in the recent denial of my statutory employer defense in the case. Counsel commented on what he viewed as Patton’s salutary effect, observing that “finally, the Superior Court and the Commonwealth Court are on the same page.” Counsel’s observation, however, immediately struck me as faulty, since, if the statutory employer doctrine is properly applied, disparate results should be found in the two courts: in a nutshell, where statutory employer liability to pay workers compensation benefits is found in Commonwealth Court, that party’s statutory employer defense to tort liability should arise in Superior Court. Conversely, if that party is not a statutory employer, it will be without workers compensation liability in Commonwealth Court, but will face tort liability to the injured party in Superior Court.
This paper will examine the origins and near-century-long treatment, both legislative and judicial, of the statutory employer doctrine, and the ill-considered practical effects of Patton. In short, while its reasoning strongly suggests Patton’s presumed goal was to constrain (or even eliminate altogether) the immunities from tort liability that the statutory employer may enjoy (a goal clearly at odds with well-settled Pennsylvania Supreme Court decisional law), its surely unintended consequence is to offer a means by which a statutory employer may in fact escape workers compensation liability to injured workers.