A Fresno County Superior Court judge has dismissed a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the family of a Fresno paramedic who was killed in an air ambulance helicopter crash in December 2015. The ruling was based upon the application of the exclusive remedy provisions of the workers’ compensation law.
Brooke Juarez, and her children sued Rogers Helicopters and American Airborne, claiming they were negligent in the maintenance and operation of the Bell 407 aircraft that crashed in a field nine miles east of McFarland in Kern County resulting in the death of her husband, paramedic Kyle Juarez. At the time, the SkyLife Air Ambulance Bell 407 helicopter was carrying a patient from Porterville to Bakersfield on a routine transportation mission.
Kyle Juarez was a flight and ground paramedic and nine-year veteran of American Ambulance. He spent the last three years on the Skylife team.
Defendants Rogers Helicopters, lnc. , ROAM, and American Airborne, EMS moved for summary judgment on the ground that workers compensation exclusivity precludes plaintiffs’ actions against them, as decedent Kyle Juarez’s joint employers.
The decision recited the history of the joint employers. In 1991 American Airborne entered into a general partnership with defendant Rogers to form ROAM dba SkyLife (“ROAM/SkyLife”). The helicopters used in this partnership were jointly owned by and registered to Rogers and American Airborne. Rogers provided aircraft operations, and American Airborne/Ambulance provided medical support services.
The ROAM/SkyLife Standard Operating Procedures manual includes many provisions indicating a level of control by the partnership over workers such as Mr. Juarez. This includes requirements relating to clothing/uniforms on the job, grooming, weight limits, where and when employees will work, scheduling, and required certification.
Juarez attended monthly safety meetings and mandatory quarterly staff meetings, along with pre-flight briefings and post-flight de-briefings. Juarez wore a ROAM/SkyLife uniform and participated in decisions whether to undertake each flight, and in the cleaning of the aircraft.
Juarez was not paid directly by ROAM/SkyLife, but ROAM/SkyLife indirectly paid his wages and benefits when invoiced by American Ambulance. He; was a skilled worker with substantial control over the details of his work, though he was supervised by American Ambulance personnel, effectively a ROAM/SkyLife partner, with regards to the provision of medical care.
An employee may have more than one employer for purposes of Workers compensation, and, in situations of dual employers, the second or “special” employer may enjoy the same immunity from a common law negligence action on account of an industrial injury as does the first or “general” employer. (Santa Cruz Poultry, Inc. v. Superior Court (1987) 194 Cal.App.3d 575, 578.)
Joint employment occurs when two or more persons engage the services of an employee in an enterprise In which the employee is subject to the control of both. (In-Home Supportive Services v. Workers’ Comp. Appeals Bd. (1984) i52 Cal. App. 3d 720, 732.) Once a special employment relationship is identified, the special employer’ is liable for workers compensation coverage, and that employer Is immune from a common law tort action.
The court found that the undisputed facts demonstrate that American Ambulance was the general employer of Juarez, and that ROAM/SkyLife Was his special employer. Because Juarez’s death occurred during the course and scope of his employment, the court ruled that his family’s legal remedy is through the workers’ compensation system, which, by law, precludes them from suing the defendants.
Also killed in the Dec. 10 2014 crash was pilot Thomas Hampl, 49, of Bend, Ore., an employee of Rogers Helicopters; critical care nurse Marco Lopez, 42, of Hanford, a three-year SkyLife veteran; and the patient, Kathryn Ann Brown, 40, of Springville, who was employed as a substitute school teacher.
The cause of the crash is being investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board. The NTSB has not yet issue a report of its findings.