A Washington County jury has backed a teenage horse farm worker’s argument that when she was injured on the job, she was an employee and not a contract worker.
The jury delivered a $274,010 verdict in favor of Melanie McCartney of Hancock. McCartney suffered serious injuries to her hand after being kicked by a horse while working at Hoffman Family Farms in Clear Spring.
According to McCartney’s complaint, the Hoffmans committed “workplace fraud” by classifying her as an independent contractor. Her lawsuit sought $1.7 million on claims that included failing to secure workers’ compensation and failing to provide a safe workplace.
McCartney, who was 17 when she started working at Hoffman Family Farms in 2010, earned $8 an hour for cleaning the stalls, training and feeding horses and other responsibilities. Hoffman Farms had about 60 horses on site at the time of the accident.
Kimberly J. Jandrain, with Coburn & Greenbaum PLLC in Washington, who represented McCartney, declined to comment.
Calls to the owners of Hoffman Family Farms and their attorney, Scott Schubel, were not returned.
McCartney had filed an IRS form W-9, the form given to independent contractors.
She established that she was in fact an employee by showing, among other things, that she used the farm’s tools and equipment and the farm sent her for training seminars in the “Clinton Anderson” method of horse training techniques. She reportedly worked five to seven days a week.
McCartney alleged that on the day of the accident, she had to fill feeders in a field with approximately 30 horses in the vicinity. She was alone at the time of the accident, which happened around 8 a.m. on April 12, 2011.
“While filling the feeders, [McCartney] was unable to monitor the activity around her and could not, for example, see the horses behind her,” the complaint reads. “This manner of feeding the horses presented a grave danger.”
McCartney said she had been kicked before while feeding the horses and had complained about the conditions. According to the lawsuit, other employees had said “it was just a matter of time,” before someone was seriously injured. With hindsight, these emplohe horses to a feeder, she was kicked in the hand by one of the other horses. McCartney said she fell to the ground in pain and eventually had to be taken to the emergency room.
According to evidence at the trial, the injury will require a future rebreaking of the hand and the insertion of metal screws.
McCartney claimed after the injury that she was told that she was not eligible for workers’ compensation because she was an independent contractor. She also claimed the farm denied her compensation for missed time after the injury.
She filed suit on June 8, 2011, in Washington County Circuit Court.
The case went to trial on June 25  and was sent to the jury on June 27. After a little less than 2 1/2 hours of deliberation, the jury found for McCartney that she was an employee, not a contractor, and that Hoffman Farms was negligent.
McCartney was awarded: $14,390 for past medical expenses; $9,620 in lost wages and $250,000 in noneconomic losses. The noneconomic losses award is not impacted by the state cap on noneconomic damages in non-medical malpractice lawsuits.
ATTENTION FARM OWNERS
To learn more about this issue – and how to avoid getting caught in the same situation, sign up to attend the MHC Business Network Lunch on Thursday, August 30, 2012 at Select Breeders Services in Cheseapeake City. Membership required, lunch included. Click here (and scroll down) for more information.