Jon Campisi Oct. 4, 2013, 7:30am


A Philadelphia Common Pleas Court judge has overruled preliminary

objections by a defendant in a workplace injury case, ruling that the defendant, which had been named in a joinder complaint to the initial litigation, must file a response to that suit within 20 days of the judicial order.

Judge Frederica A. Massiah-Jackson, in her Sept. 26 order, wrote that Cornwells Construction Co. must answer a joinder complaint that was filed by JPC Group and Quincy Contractors Inc.

The joinder complaint was filed in response to a lawsuit initiated by Larry Woelk, a Cornwells employee who claims that he was injured in the spring of 2011 after he fell through scaffolding at a construction site in Northeast Philadelphia.

Woelk, who says he sustained serious and permanent injuries in the fall, ended up suing JCP Group, the general contractor on the project, for negligence.

JPC, in turn, filed a joinder complaint against Cornwells, asserting that the subcontract agreement entered into by the parties obligates Cornwells to indemnify and hold JPC harmless from Woelk’s claims.

In its preliminary objections, Cornwells argued that it should be immune from liability as per the Workers’ Compensation Act, but JPC disagreed, relying on a waiver provision in the law.

“This Court concludes that the Subcontract Agreement does specifically use language that Cornwells, as the employer, agreed to indemnify JPC from liability for acts of JPC’s negligence which resulted in harm to Mr. Woelk, Cornwell’s employee,” Massiah-Jackson wrote.

The judge wrote that JPC’s right to pursue an indemnification recovery is premature, however, because Woelk’s claims against the company are still pending, and because Cornwells and JPC agreed that Cornwells wouldn’t be responsible for indemnity if JPC, the contractor on the project, had been given written notice of the unsafe condition at the jobsite prior to any workplace accident.

“Accordingly, JPC’s right to pursue indemnification is contingent on the evidence obtained and the outcome of the underlying claims,” Massiah-Jackson wrote.

In her ruling, the judge referenced a Pennsylvania Superior Court holding that an indemnification clause in a work contract must contain “plain language which would avoid the employer’s protection from double responsibility which is afforded by the Workers’ Compensation Act.”

In this case, Massiah-Jackson wrote, “the language is clear that Cornwells did expressly agree to be held liable for injuries to Mr. Woelk caused by the negligence of JPC … whether or not the suit arises out of the sole negligence of JPC.”

The judge also noted that Cornwells agreed to indemnify JPC for claims of its own employees when they are based on allegations of an unsafe worksite, as is the case in the Woelk litigation.

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