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North Carolina Workers Compensation Who Is An Employee

Workers’ compensation has become part of the fabric of the employer-employee relationship in North Carolina and across the U.S. In essence, an employer purchases insurance to cover the cost of work-related employee injuries and illnesses. This mandated coverage replaces the uncertainty of an employee having to sue his or her employer for work-related medical expenses and lost wages. In almost all situations, when a work injury happens, both parties know medical costs and lost wages will be handled through the workers’ compensation system, regardless of who was at fault.

The Nature of the Employment Relationship

A common legal issue that arises in the workers’ compensation context is whether an employment relationship actually exists between the injured person and the entity that benefited from that person’s work. The North Carolina Workers’ Compensation Act uses broad, inclusive language in its definition of “employee”: “… every person engaged in an employment under any appointment or contract of hire or apprenticeship, express or implied, oral or written, including aliens, and also minors, whether lawfully or unlawfully employed …”

An Unusual Turn of Events

The Court of Appeals of North Carolina was recently faced squarely with deciding whether a severely injured worker was really an employee in an unlikely, confusing work setting. In the October 2011 case of Campos-Brizuela v. Rocha Masonry, L.L.C., the court held that the man in question, Nelson Campos-Brizuela, was an employee of Rocha Masonry for workers’ compensation purposes and that his maimed hand would be covered.

Felipe Quintero worked for Rocha Masonry, which had a 2009 cement job at a Kernersville school. Quintero asked Campos-Brizuela, an acquaintance, to work at the site and drove Campos-Brizuela there the next day. Campos-Brizuela testified at an earlier hearing before a Deputy Commissioner of the North Carolina Industrial Commission that:

  • Quintero specified the hourly wage and that Campos-Brizuela would be paid with a “company check.”
  • Quintero seemed to have the authority to offer Campos-Brizuela the job.
  • Quintero verbally directed the duties of many workers on the site.
  • Campos-Brizuela thought the other workers were employees of Rocha Masonry.
  • Campos-Brizuela thought Quintero was his “immediate boss.”
  • Campos-Brizuela asked Quintero for direction; Quintero told him to clean a concrete pump and during this task Campos-Brizuela’s hand was crushed and nearly severed.

Ironically, Rocha was publicly fined for a safety violation for not having the required safety guard on the pump.

The Employer’s Defense

The masonry company’s defense was simple: it asserted that Campos-Brizuela was not an employee when he was hurt, so he was not covered under its workers’ compensation policy. Rocha said that Quintero had not been given the authority to make hiring decisions so he could not have legally employed Campos-Brizuela.

Apparent Authority

The court applied the concept of “apparent authority” in deciding that Campos-Brizuela was an employee under the law. In a work setting, if an employee’s actions and the surrounding circumstances would lead a reasonable person to believe that the employee had real, actual authority to act on behalf of the employer, the employee acts with “apparent authority.”

The court found that Campos-Brizuela reasonably relied on the apparent authority of Quintero to act for the company in hiring and supervising the work at the school. Further, the court reasoned, Rocha Masonry benefited from the Campos-Brizuela’s contributions at the work site.

Under these circumstances, the court held that Campos-Brizuela was an employee of the masonry company for purposes of workers’ compensation, and therefore eligible for coverage of his horrendous hand injury. The court also noted that it would not make sense for every person when hired for a job to have to independently confirm that the hiring person really had the authority to do so.

The Value of Legal Counsel

As the Campos-Brizuela case illustrates, things may not always be as they seem. North Carolina workers’ compensation law is complicated, and even if there are circumstances that lead you to believe your work injury or industrial disease may not be covered, talk to an experienced, knowledgeable workers’ compensation attorney about your situation. The law can take some interesting twists and turns along the way to eligibility.