Illinois Work Comp: Widow’s Suit Barred by Borrowed Employee Doctrine

The past July, an Illinois appeals court affirmed a lower court ruling that stated a widow of a maintenance man who died in an accident while repairing a garage door at a car dealership may not sue in court for her husband’s wrongful death.

Rather, his status as a “borrowed employee” at the dealership made a workers’ compensation award her only legal remedy. Because workers’ compensation covered the incident, it was the “exclusive remedy,” preventing other types of legal claims, including her wrongful death lawsuit.

Explaining the Workers’ Compensation System

Broadly, the workers’ compensation system, which is governed by state law, sets up a benefits program for people with work-related injuries or diseases without regard to whose fault the employment-related harm was. Workers’ comp also provides for survivors’ benefits in some situations when employees die because of accidents or diseases caused by their jobs.

Workers’ compensation benefits are paid by employers or their insurers, and in exchange for taking on that liability-even when the incidents or sicknesses are not their fault-the law prevents workers or their survivors from suing employers for negligence or wrongful death outside the work comp system in almost all situations. For this reason, workers’ compensation is referred to as the “exclusive remedy.”

Illinois law states that not only is workers’ comp the exclusive legal remedy for harm from work performed in an employee-employer relationship, but also for injury when an employee is loaned out to another employer. An employee is considered “borrowed” or “loaned” when his or her employer loans him or her out to a different entity to perform work tasks and the borrowing entity has the “right to control the direction and manner of the employee’s work.” Factors looked at include whether the employee:

  • Adheres to the same schedule as the borrowing entity
  • Receives instruction and guidance from the borrowing entity?
  • Provide a benefit to the borrowing entity
  • Is supervised by the original employer
  • Has work hours set by the borrowing entity

Prodanic v. Grossinger City Autocorp, Inc.

In the recent case described above, widow Moevanu Prodanic sued in court for the wrongful death of her husband, Milovan Prodanic, or “Mike” after he was killed in a gruesome fall from a platform while repairing a garage door. Mike was a maintenance man hired by Grossinger Chevrolet, but according to deposition testimony, he was also expected to work at Grossinger City Autocorp, Inc., or City Autocorp, a related corporate entity with the same president who hired Mike at Grossinger Chevrolet.

The appellate court held that Mike was a borrowed employee as a matter of law because the facts of record could only support “one reasonable determination.” The court cited several reasons why City Autocorp controlled and directed Mike’s work, including the fact that:

  • City Autocorp managers could call Mike to come in outside of his regular schedule
  • City Autocorp managers could give Mike specific tasks with deadlines
  • City Autocorp gave directions to Mike, had the power to tell him how to do tasks and could step in and stop his work if it was not safe
  • No one from Grossinger Chevrolet, the original employer, was involved in supervising Mike at City Autocorp when Mike worked
  • City Autocorp employees assisted Mike
  • Grossinger Chevrolet gave control of its lift to City Autocorp for Mike’s use

For purposes of the borrowed employee doctrine, Mike could still be paid by Grossinger Chevrolet and fall under its work comp insurance. Because Mike was an employee of Grossinger Chevrolet on loan to City Autocorp, however, the borrowed employee doctrine prevented his widow to sue in wrongful death. Her only legal claim can be through the Illinois workers’ compensation system.

As this case shows, Illinois work comp law is complex, and anyone injured at work or surviving the death of a loved one related to his or her job should consult with an experienced, skilled Illinois workers’ compensation attorney to learn about his or her rights and legal options.