Business

Family of woman killed at Treasure Valley seed company can’t sue, Idaho Supreme Court rules

Crookham Co.’s CEO George Crookham explains the process of converting fresh-picked corn from the field into seeds ready to be sold, in this photo from 2012.
Crookham Co.’s CEO George Crookham explains the process of converting fresh-picked corn from the field into seeds ready to be sold, in this photo from 2012. Katherine Jones / Idaho Statesman

The Idaho Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that the family of a woman killed while working at Caldwell seed producer Crookham Co. cannot bring a civil lawsuit against the company because they had received workers’ compensation benefits.

The decision upholds an Idaho law that prohibits workers from seeking additional benefits in civil court if they are receiving workers’ compensation. That provision holds that workers’ compensation is the “exclusive remedy” for employees injured or killed on the job.

In January 2016, Francisca R. Gomez, 63, caught her hair in a machine she was cleaning and was pulled into it. She died as a result of her injuries. In July 2016, her family filed a lawsuit against the company in the 3rd District Court for negligence, wrongful death and liability for the defective machine that killed Gomez. They sought damages in excess of $10,000.

“As the law currently stands, an employer in Idaho can do pretty much anything they want to their employee, aside from battery or intentional physical harm, and get away with it,” said Bruce Skaug, whose law firm argued the case on behalf of the Gomez family. He is also a Nampa city councilman. “Our hope was to change that with this case.”

The exclusive remedy provision prevents workers from “double-dipping,” and receiving worker’s compensation and another type of payment, said Bryan Graham, a product manager in Boise for Associated Insurance Services.

The policy benefits insurance companies by reducing the liability of businesses they cover, he said. Idaho is considered more friendly to insurers than neighboring states like Washington and California, Graham added.

In response to the Gomez family’s lawsuit, the 3rd District Court granted the Crookham Co. a summary judgment — meaning it deemed there were no disputable facts in the case, and it sided with the company without going to trial.

The district court argued that Idaho law bars death claims because the family had received workers’ compensation. Idaho law does allow one exception: employees can bring lawsuits against companies if death or injury is caused by “the willful or unprovoked physical aggression of the employer, its officers, agents, servants or employees,” according to state statute.

The Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s ruling that the case did not merit as exemption, as its negligence was not equivalent to an act of physical aggression.

In bringing this case, Skaug had hoped to create a new precedent that would allow for recourse outside the workers’ comp system.

The case is a loss for worker safety, he said.

“There’s no financial incentive for the employer to change their behavior,” he said.

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Kate reports on West Ada and Canyon County for the Idaho Statesman. She previously worked for the Louisville Courier-Journal, the Center for Investigative Reporting and the Providence Business News. She has been published in The Atlantic and BuzzFeed News. Kate graduated from Brown University with a degree in urban studies.If you like seeing stories like this, please consider supporting our work with a digital subscription to the Idaho Statesman.

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