While on the job for Coronado Wrecking and Salvage, Andrew Vasquez directed the loading of steel beams onto a flatbed trailer. A co-worker operating a forklift became concerned the beams weren’t properly positioned on the forks. Instead of lowering them to the ground, he climbed out of the cab for a better view. As he did so, one of the steel beams slid off and struck Vasquez, pinning him to the ground. He died a short time later in the hospital.
According to an order issued by the trial judge, the New Mexico Occupational Health and Safety Bureau investigated the accident and cited Coronado for violations of various safety regulations. That left the question of compensation for Vasquez’s survivors.
Because he was killed on the job, his estate collected workers’ compensation. Workers’ comp has always been a trade-off. An injured worker (or the estate of a worker killed on the job) is entitled to limited compensation without a showing of fault. In return, the employer is granted immunity from being sued for the accident.
But how far does the immunity from suit extend? One New Mexico statute says comp benefits are provided “in lieu of any other liability whatsoever.” That word “whatsoever” is comprehensive. Viewed in isolation, the statute can only mean that a worker injured or killed on the job is prohibited from obtaining compensation from any other source. But not so fast! Another statute says: “No cause of action outside the Workers’ Compensation Act shall be brought … against the employer or [its] representative, including the insurer.” That provision limits the grant of immunity to only a small circle, leaving a wide field of others who might potentially be subject to suit. So which statute is controlling?