Jaiguay v. Vasquez

Decision Date17 June 2008
Docket NumberNo. 17814.,17814.
Citation287 Conn. 323,948 A.2d 955
CourtConnecticut Supreme Court
PartiesHugo JAIGUAY, Administrator (Estate of Juan Rocano Brito) v. Joel VASQUEZ et al.

Brenden P. Leydon, Stamford, for the appellant (plaintiff).

Frank C. Bartlett, Jr., Cheshire, with whom was Sergio C. Deganis, for the appellee (named defendant).

Lisa Faris-McNamara, for the appellees (defendant Percy Montes et al.).

NORCOTT, KATZ, PALMER, ZARELLA and SCHALLER, Js.

PALMER, J.

This action arises out of an automobile accident in Greenwich in which Juan Rocano Brito (decedent), an employee of Primo's Landscaping, Inc. (Primo's Landscaping), a New York corporation, was killed while riding as a passenger in a pickup truck that was operated by a coworker, Joel Vasquez, and registered to Percy Montes, a coowner and employee of Primo's Landscaping.1 The plaintiff, Hugo Jaiguay, administrator of the decedent's estate, commenced this action against the defendants Vasquez, Percy Montes and Primo's Landscaping, seeking damages for the decedent's allegedly wrongful death. After concluding that New York law applied to the plaintiff's action, the trial court granted the defendants' motions for summary judgment on the ground that the action was barred by the exclusivity provision of New York's Workers' Compensation Law, N.Y. Workers' Comp. Law § 29(6). On appeal,2 the plaintiff claims that the trial court improperly granted the defendants' motions for summary judgment because, inter alia, Connecticut's Workers' Compensation Act, General Statutes § 31-275 et seq., which, in contrast to New York law, permits an action for damages arising out of a coworker's negligent operation of a motor vehicle, is the governing law, and, even if New York law applies, genuine issues of material fact remain as to (1) whether Vasquez was operating the vehicle in the course of his employment, and (2) whether Percy Montes' alleged negligence in entrusting the vehicle to Vasquez was work-related. We conclude that the trial court properly determined that the defendants are entitled to summary judgment under the applicable provisions of New York law. We therefore affirm the judgment of the trial court.

The following facts and procedural history are relevant to our resolution of this appeal. On June 19, 2001, Vasquez and the decedent, both of whom were residents of New York, left their work site in Rye Brook, New York, in a 1992 pickup truck driven by Vasquez. At the time, seven other Primo's Landscaping employees were riding in the truck even though the truck's maximum occupancy was five persons. Percy Montes, a New York resident, had registered and insured the truck in his own name, but it was used exclusively by Primo's Landscaping.3 Vasquez was driving along King Street in Greenwich when he crossed the center line of the road and collided with an oncoming vehicle. At the time of the accident, Vasquez, who had a New York state driver's permit but not a driver's license, was traveling approximately seventy miles per hour in a zone with a speed limit of thirty miles per hour, and had just passed a sign warning of a sharp curve in the road ahead.4 The decedent was pronounced dead at the scene of the accident. According to Vasquez, for some weeks prior to the accident, the truck's brakes had not been working properly, a fact that he had brought to the attention of a coworker, Ray Tello, who had promised to inform Primo's Landscaping's mechanic of the problem. Vasquez eventually pleaded guilty in Connecticut to negligent homicide with a motor vehicle and was sentenced to six months imprisonment.

On December 7, 2004, the New York workers' compensation board awarded survivor's benefits to the decedent's two minor children. Thereafter, the plaintiff brought this action, claiming, inter alia, that the decedent's death had been caused by Vasquez' reckless operation of the pickup truck. The plaintiff also alleged that Percy Montes negligently had entrusted a defective vehicle to a driver whom he knew did not have a valid driver's license.5 The defendants filed motions for summary judgment, claiming that the action was barred by the exclusivity provision of New York's Workers' Compensation Law, which contain no exception for actions against a coworker arising out of that coworker's work-related, negligent operation of a motor vehicle. The plaintiff claimed that Connecticut's Workers' Compensation Act, which has such an exception; see General Statutes § 31-293a; is applicable. Upon consideration of the interests of the two states and the reasonable expectations of the parties, the trial court agreed with the defendants that New York law applies, granted their motions for summary judgment and rendered judgment thereon. The plaintiff appeals from the trial court's judgment.6 Additional facts and procedural history will be set forth as necessary.

I

The plaintiff first claims that the trial court improperly determined that New York law applies to the case. The plaintiff contends that Connecticut law is applicable because the injury occurred in this state and because Connecticut has a strong interest in deterring the reckless conduct of drivers who use its roads. Contrary to the plaintiff's contention, the trial court correctly concluded that New York law governs.

We begin our review of the plaintiff's claim by summarizing the relevant portions of the workers' compensation statutes of Connecticut and New York. "Connecticut's Workers' Compensation Act ... is the exclusive remedy for injuries sustained by an employee arising out of and in the course of his employment.... General Statutes § 31-284(a). Under the act's strict liability provisions, workers are compensated without regard to fault. In return for a relatively low burden of proof and expeditious recovery, employees relinquish their right to any common-law tort claim for their injuries.... Generally, then, all rights and claims between employers and employees, or their representatives or dependents, arising out of personal injury or death sustained in the course of employment are abolished as a result of the act's exclusivity bar.

"Another provision of [this state's] act, [namely] ... § 31-293a, creates an exception, however, to the otherwise applicable exclusivity bar. In relevant part, § 31-293a provides that [i]f an employee ... has a right to benefits or compensation ... on account of injury or death from injury caused by the negligence or wrong of a fellow employee, such right shall be the exclusive remedy of such injured employee or dependent and no action may be brought against such fellow employee unless such wrong was wilful or malicious or the action is based on the fellow employee's negligence in the operation of a motor vehicle.... As we explained in Colangelo v. Heckelman, 279 Conn. 177, 183-84, 900 A.2d 1266 (2006), if an employee suffers injuries, which otherwise would be compensable under the act, due to the negligence of a fellow employee, the injured employee is barred from recovery against that fellow employee unless the injuries were caused by the fellow employee's negligent operation of a motor vehicle." (Citation omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) Johnson v. Atkinson, 283 Conn. 243, 251-52, 926 A.2d 656 (2007).

The statutory scheme for workers' compensation in New York contains an exclusivity provision similar to our own. "It is well recognized that the [New York workers'] compensation statute was designed to provide a swift and sure source of benefits to the injured employee or to the dependents of the deceased employee. The price for these secure benefits is the loss of the common-law tort action in which greater benefits might be obtained. Thus, unless the employee can establish the existence of a limited number of exceptional circumstances, the sole remedy is [workers'] compensation." O'Rourke v. Long, 41 N.Y.2d 219, 222, 359 N.E.2d 1347, 391 N.Y.S.2d 553 (1976). Unlike this state's law, however, the New York statutory scheme contains no provision authorizing an employee to bring a common-law tort action against a coworker for damages stemming from the coworker's work-related, negligent operation of a motor vehicle. See generally N.Y. Workers' Comp. Law § 29(6) (McKinney 2005).7

We now consider the plaintiff's contention that our choice of law principles compel the conclusion that this case is governed by Connecticut law. Although this court, in Johnson v. Atkinson, supra, 283 Conn. at 243, 926 A.2d 656, recently addressed certain issues relating to choice of law questions in workers' compensation cases, our jurisprudence in this area has not been fully consistent or illuminating. This case presents an appropriate opportunity for us to reconsider and clarify the choice of law approach that is most appropriate when, as in the present case, a plaintiff who has been awarded workers' compensation benefits brings a common-law tort action seeking damages for injuries sustained as a result of a coworker's allegedly negligent operation of a motor vehicle. To that end, it is necessary to review those cases of this court and the Appellate Court that have considered choice of law issues pertaining to the question posed by the present case. As we explain more fully hereinafter, those cases fall into two general categories, namely, cases that involve claims for workers' compensation benefits in this state, and cases, like the present one, involving tort actions permitted by an exception to the exclusivity provisions of the applicable workers' compensation scheme.

We begin our review with Simaitis v. Flood, 182 Conn. 24, 437 A.2d 828 (1980). In Simaitis, we were required to decide which choice of law rule to apply in a case involving a negligence claim asserted under the motor vehicle exception of § 31-293a. See id., at 27, 437 A.2d 828. The named plaintiff, Catherine Simaitis, and the defendant, Susan Flood, both lived in Connecticut, worked for the same...

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