Alabama Supreme Court Affirms Summary Judgment in Favor of Employer and TPA in Outrage Claim
The Alabama Supreme Court recently affirmed summary judgment in favor of Pilgrim’s Pride Corporation and its third-party workers’ compensation administrator, Sedgwick Claims Management entered by the Circuit Court of Franklin County, Alabama in regard to a claim for the tort of outrage brought by Florence King. King initially asserted a workers’ compensation claim against Pilgrim’s Pride in October 2012, claiming that she suffered injuries to both shoulders and arms as a result of the repetitive nature of her job on Pilgrim’s Pride’s production line. Although Pilgrim’s Pride disputed the compensability of King’s alleged injuries, it nevertheless provided King with medical treatment, which included surgery on one of her shoulders and pain management. After King’s doctors determined she had reached maximum medical improvement, the claims adjuster at Sedgwick reached out to King and offered to settle her case as disputed. King initially accepted the settlement offer, but then changed her mind. When additional treatment prescribed by King’s treating physicians was not approved, King sued Pilgrim’s Pride for workers’ compensation benefits. She also sued Pilgrim’s Pride and Sedgwick asserting a claim of outrage, for what she claimed was intentional infliction of emotional distress due to a delay in approving medical treatment related to her alleged injuries. Pilgrim’s Pride denied the allegations of King’s Complaint, asserting that her alleged injuries were not compensable. The workers’ compensation case proceeded to trial in September 2020. The parties stipulated that the only issue in dispute at trial was whether King’s alleged injuries were compensable. King’s orthopedist testified that he did not have a firm conviction as to whether King’s job duties caused or contributed to her alleged injuries. However, the trial court found King’s alleged injuries compensable.
Thereafter, both Pilgrim’s Pride and Sedgwick filed motions for summary judgment as to King’s outrage claim. The defendants asserted that since the compensability of King’s alleged injuries was disputed, they had no duty to provide King with medical treatment until the trial court found those alleged injuries compensable. The trial court agreed, and entered summary judgment in their favor. King then appealed to the Supreme Court, and the Court affirmed the trial court’s decision without writing a formal opinion.
My Two Cents
Outrage is an extremely limited cause of action. In order to prevail on a claim for the tort of outrage, a plaintiff must prove by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant intended to inflict emotional distress and that the defendant’s outrageous and extreme conduct caused emotional distress so severe that no reasonable person could be expected to endure it. Alabama law has long held that a defendant cannot be liable for the tort of outrage by merely insisting on its legal rights – even if the defendant knows that doing so is likely to cause severe emotional distress. Alabama law has also long held that it would be a violation of an employer’s right to due process of the law to require it to provide workers’ compensation benefits when there is a bona fide dispute as to the employer’s liability for the injury. Therefore, the Supreme Court’s decision affirms the fact that an employer (or its insurer) cannot be found guilty of outrageous conduct for denying workers’ compensation benefits when there has been no admission or legal adjudication that the underlying injury is compensable.
About the Author
This blog submission was prepared by Charley Drummond, an attorney with Fish Nelson & Holden, LLC, a law firm dedicated to representing self-insured employers, insurance carriers, and third party administrators in all matters related to workers’ compensation. Fish Nelson & Holden is a member of the National Workers’ Compensation Defense Network. If you have any questions about this submission or Alabama workers’ compensation in general, please contact Mr. Drummond by e-mailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling him directly at (205) 332-3414.