Oregon Workers' Compensation Law Does Not Shield Employer LLC's Managing Member from Negligence Claim by Injured Worker

The Oregon Court of Appeals recently held that the exclusive remedy provision of Oregon’s workers’ compensation law does not shield an employer LLC’s managing member from a negligence claim by the LLC’s injured worker. Cortez v. NACCO Materials Handling Grp., Inc., No. A144045; 050302632, 2012 WL 758895 (Or. App. Feb. 29, 2012).

Background. Workers’ compensation insurance provides reasonably quick and sure payments to workers injured on the job, regardless of whether or not the employer is negligent. Payments cover medical expenses and disability, but the tradeoff for not requiring the employee to prove negligence is that the amounts are fixed and limited. Workers’ compensation statutes normally provide that the worker’s claim under the statute is the worker’s exclusive remedy against the employer, other employees, and the officers and directors of the employer.

The Case. In Cortez the plaintiff was injured while employed by Sun Studs, LLC, an Oregon limited liability company. Later he filed for and obtained workers’ compensation benefits from Sun Studs’ insurer. He then sued Sun Studs’ sole member, Swanson Group, Inc., for (a) negligence, (b) violations of Oregon’s Employer Liability Law (ELL), Or. Rev. Stat. § 654.305 to 654.336, and (c) noncompliance with the workers’ compensation statute, Or. Rev. Stat. § 656.017. Sun Studs was member-managed and Swanson Group was therefore its sole managing member.

The plaintiff conceded at trial that he could not prove noncompliance with the workers’ compensation statute, and the trial court dismissed his negligence and ELL claims based on the exclusive remedy provision of Oregon’s workers’ compensation statute.

The question before the Court of Appeals was therefore whether the exclusive remedy language in Oregon’s workers’ compensation statute protected the LLC’s managing member from the plaintiff’s negligence and ELL claims. The statute says:

The exemption from liability given an employer under this section is also extended to the employer’s insurer, the self-insured employer’s claims administrator, the Department of Consumer and Business Services, and the contracted agents, employees, officers and directors of the employer, the employer’s insurer, the self-insured employer’s claims administrator and the department ….

Or. Rev. Stat. § 656.018(3) (emphasis added). The court phrased the issue as “whether the legislature intended to include ‘members’ of limited liability companies among those exempt from liability under the exclusive remedy provisions of ORS 656.018.” Cortez, 2012 WL 758895, at *2.

The Court’s Analysis. The court first noted that an LLC is a legal entity distinct from its members, so that even if the exclusive remedy provision applies to an LLC as an employer, it does not necessarily apply to the LLC’s members. Id. at *3. The court then pointed out that when the legislature enacted Oregon’s LLC Act, it included a provision that extended the coverage of certain other statutes to LLC members and managers: “Whenever a section of Oregon Revised Statutes applies to both ‘partners’ and ‘directors’, the section shall also apply: … [i]n a limited liability company without managers, to the members of the limited liability company.” Id. at *4 (quoting Or. Rev. Stat. § 63.002). The list of entities and persons in the exclusive remedy statute includes directors but not partners, so § 63.002 was nonapplicable. The court saw that omission as further evidence that the legislature had not intended to exempt LLC members from liability under § 656.018(3).

The court also reasoned by analogy to corporate shareholders, citing Fields v. Jantec, Inc., 317 Or. 432, 857 P.2d 95 (1993). “Thus, a shareholder, as an owner of a corporation, does not fall under the protection of the exclusive remedy provision in ORS 656.018(3). By analogy, a member, as an owner of an LLC, also does not fall under the protection of the exclusive remedy provision in ORS 656.018(3).” Cortez, at *4.The court did not discuss the fact that Swanson Group, the LLC’s managing member, was both a member and a manager, much like the sole shareholder in Fields who was also an officer and director.

The defendant also claimed that it was not liable because of § 63.165 of the LLC Act, which states that “[a] member or manager is not personally liable for a debt, obligation or liability of the limited liability company solely by reason of being or acting as a member or manager.” The court pointed out that § 63.165 does not shield an LLC member from its own tortious conduct. Cortez, at *5.

The court’s final conclusion was that neither the exclusive remedy provision of the workers’ compensation statute, § 656.018(3), nor the liability limitation of the LLC Act, § 63.165, shielded Swanson Group from the plaintiff’s negligence claim. The court dismissed the plaintiff’s ELL claim on other grounds, and remanded the case to the trial court to resolve the plaintiff’s negligence claim.

Comment. The court began its analysis by mistakenly framing the issue as “whether the legislature intended to include ‘members’ of limited liability companies among those exempt from liability under the exclusive remedy provisions” of the statute. Cortez, at *2. This characterization oversimplifies by ignoring the distinction between members of a member-managed LLC and members of a manager-managed LLC. The former are both owners and active managers of the LLC. The latter are only owners.

Oregon’s LLC Act defines a manager-managed LLC as an LLC that is designated as a manager-managed LLC in its articles of organization or whose articles of organization otherwise expressly provide that the LLC will be managed by a manager or managers. Or. Rev. Stat. § 63.001.

A member-managed LLC, on the other hand, is defined simply as an LLC other than a manager-managed LLC. Id. Swanson Group was the sole member of a member-managed LLC. Cortez, 2012 WL 758895 at *1.

Members of a member-managed Oregon LLC are “managers” under the LLC Act and have full rights to control the management and conduct of the LLC. Or. Rev. Stat. § 63.130(1)(a), 63.130(7). More significantly, a member of a member-managed LLC is an agent of the LLC and the act of such a member on behalf of the LLC binds the LLC.

Conversely, members of a manager-managed LLC have no right to participate in the management and control of the LLC and are not agents of the LLC. (The rights of members in the two types of LLCs are subject to modification in the articles of organization or operating agreement, but the court in Cortez did not refer to any such provisions of either.)

Thus, members of a member-managed LLC act as agents and representatives of the LLC when they manage it and conduct its business and affairs. And it is representatives of the employer that the key language in the exclusive remedy focuses on: “the contracted agents, employees, officers and directors of the employer.” Or. Rev. Stat. § 656.018(3).

It seems clear that an LLC’s manager is the type of representative that § 656.018(3) is intended to cover. But as the Cortez court pointed out, courts must neither insert in the statute what has been omitted nor omit what has been inserted. Cortez, at *2. The court seems to have ignored, however, the reference in the statute to agents. The LLC Act defines each member of a member-managed LLC as an agent of the LLC, so under a proper understanding of Swanson Group’s status as the sole managing member of the LLC, it should have been shielded from the plaintiff’s negligence claim.

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