North Carolina Court Rules That Workers’ Compensation Insurance Company Lacked Standing to Bring Third-Party Negligence Action to Recover Benefits Paid to Employee Hurt in Crash

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An ambulance is supposed to help others, but what happens when the ambulance itself is in a wreck? For starters, the medical employees who are driving or riding in the ambulance are probably entitled to workers’ compensation payments if they are hurt. If the accident was the ambulance driver’s fault, the passenger’s legal recourse will probably be limited to workers’ compensation because the “exclusive remedy” doctrine will prevent him or her from suing the driver – a fellow employee – directly.

But what if the crash was someone else’s fault – like another driver who failed to yield to the ambulance’s emergency lights at an intersection? Potentially, the injured passenger could file a negligence claim against that driver. However, the workers’ compensation carrier would be entitled to subrogation for any monies that it had paid to the passenger for workers’ compensation benefits (like medical expenses or temporary disability).

Recently, a North Carolina court was called to rule on a case in which the workers’ compensation company – rather than the injured employee – had filed a negligence lawsuit against a driver who allegedly caused a collision with an ambulance.

Facts of the Case

In a recent case, the plaintiff was a workers’ compensation insurance company that provided benefits to a medical center employee who was injured while a front seat passenger in an ambulance in 2013. The accident allegedly happened when the defendant failed to yield to the ambulance when it entered an intersection with its emergency lights and sirens activated while en route to an emergency call.

The insurance company filed a negligence lawsuit against the defendant in 2015, seeking to recover the nearly $64,000 in workers’ compensation benefits that it had paid to the employee. The defendant, in turn, filed a third-party claim against the ambulance driver. Thereafter, the insurance company filed a motion to substitute the employee as the plaintiff. The trial court denied the motion and, instead, granted the defendant’s motion to dismiss the insurance company’s complaint, pursuant to N.C. Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b).

Decision of the Court of Appeals of North Carolina

The appellate court affirmed. Although the insurance company argued that N.C. Gen. Stat. § 97-10.2 provided standing for it to bring suit against the defendant, the court disagreed. According to the court’s interpretation of the statute upon which the defendant relied, the employee possessed the exclusive right to proceed against the defendant during the first 12 months after the accident; thereafter, either the employee or the employer could have brought suit up until the period beginning 60 days prior to the expiration of the applicable statute of limitations, at which point the right to bring the action reverted exclusively to the employee. The insurance company itself never had a statutory right to bring the claim.

In so holding, the court pointed out that the insurance company was aware that the statutory right to bring the claim would revert back to the employee 60 days before the statute of limitations expired, but it failed to speak to her before bringing the action.

Have You Been Hurt in a Raleigh Car Accident?

If you have questions about your legal rights following a car or truck accident, experienced Raleigh car accident attorney Carl Nagle is here to help. Call us at (800) 411-1583 to schedule a free case evaluation. We serve clients throughout the state of North Carolina, including in Durham, Chapel Hill, Hickory, Fayetteville, and Asheville.

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