ERISA Does not Preempt State Law Claims of Unsafe Workplace

January 17, 2008 (PLANSPONSOR.com) - The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that a former employee's claims under Texas state law of negligence by her employer after a workplace injury were not preempted by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) just because she was enrolled in an ERISA-governed workplace injury benefit plan.

In its opinion, the appellate court said it must consider not only whether Le Ann McAteer’s claims could have been brought under ERISA but also whether her claims arise from a legal duty of her former employer independent of ERISA. The court noted it had determined in previous similar cases that state law negligence claims for failing to maintain a safe workplace are independent of ERISA.

The appellate court also decided that McAteer’s claim under state law was preserved even though she added an ERISA claim to her action after it was dismissed by a district court. The court cited a U.S. Supreme Court decision which said “timely objection can preserve the jurisdictional claim despite subsequent amendment, even if other considerations may ultimately outweigh that objection.”

According to the opinion, McAteer preserved her argument regarding improper removal by timely moving to remand the case. She added her ERISA claim after the district court denied her motion to remand that she added an ERISA claim, and in her ERISA claim she emphasized her disagreement with the remand decision.

McAteer worked at Silverleaf Resorts, Inc. as a landscaper at the Holly Lake Ranch. Silverleaf does not subscribe to Texas workers’ compensation insurance, but provides benefits to its employees through the Silverleaf Club Employee Injury Benefit Plan, which is governed by ERISA. The Plan gives no-fault benefits to employees in the event of a job-related injury and requires arbitration of any disputes regarding benefits.

McAteer claimed she suffered a job-related injury when she tripped over a cement parking stop while using a weedeater in a parking lot. She landed with her back on the weedeater and was subsequently diagnosed with a herniated disk that required surgery. McAteer did not report the injury to Silverleaf until after her employment had ended.

At that time, according to the court documents, McAteer completed an injury claim form and

submitted it to the plan, which denied the claim because McAteer had not timely reported her injury, had not sought advance approval for her medical treatment, and had not used a Plan-approved physician. McAteer did not pursue an administrative appeal of the plan administrator’s decision.

McAteer later filed suit against Silverleaf in Texas state court alleging that Silverleaf acted negligently by failing to provide her with a safe place to work, failing to properly secure the parking stop, assigning McAteer to work in the parking lot when it knew the parking stops

were hazardous, failing to warn McAteer of the improperly secured parking stops, and failing to implement procedures for employee safety that would have prevented the accident.

The opinion in McAteer v. Silverleaf Resorts Inc., 5th Cir., No. 06-41725, 1/15/08, is here .

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