UNDERSTANDING WORKERS COMP WAIVERS OF SUBROGATION

It is very common for the insurance requirements in a construction contract to include a provision requiring the subcontractor to waive all rights against the owner and general contractor for recovery of damages to the extent these damages are covered by the sub’s workers’ compensation and general liability or commercial umbrella liability insurance. Owners and general contractors insist on this provision because they want to protect themselves from being held liable for injuries to a subcontractor’s employee. Typically, the contractor giving the waiver asks its insurance company to attach a “waiver of subrogation endorsement” to its workers’ compensation policy.

The endorsement states that the insurance will company will not enforce its right to recover payments it makes to an injured worker from the person or organization listed on the endorsement. It applies only to the extent that the employer insured by the policy performs work under a written contract requiring the employer to obtain the insurance company’s waiver. It does not directly or indirectly benefit anyone not listed on the endorsement. With this endorsement on the policy, the company cannot attempt to recover payments it made to an injured worker from the company listed on the endorsement, even if that company was responsible for the injury. Consequently, the loss impacts the employer’s experience modification, probably increasing future premiums. In addition, the endorsement carries an additional premium for the employer, normally some percentage of the premium attributable to the job.

The endorsement and the waiver agreement in the contract do not bind the injured employee. He still has the ability to sue the owner and general contractor for his injuries. However, it is also common for construction contracts to require the subcontractor to defend and indemnify the owner and general contractor from any such suits. Therefore, it is probable that the employer will have to pay an additional premium for the endorsement, pay higher future workers’ compensation premiums for the loss, and pay higher future liability insurance premiums because its policy will cover the other parties’ liability.

For example, assume the sub’s employee suffers serious injuries when tools and materials fall off a scaffold and strike him. He collects workers’ compensation benefits for his medical costs and lost wages. The sub’s workers’ compensation policy includes the waiver of subrogation endorsement, so the insurance company cannot recover any of its payments. The worker sues the owner and general contractor for his pain and suffering. However, the contract requires the sub to cover the owner’s and general’s liability, so the sub’s liability insurance pays for the pain and suffering lawsuit. The sub’s insurance pays twice for the same injury to the same worker.

Owners and general contractors require waivers of subrogation for several reasons. Insurance consultants, brokers, and risk managers usually encourage them to require waivers. Waivers protect their liability insurance and reserve it for other claims. Because a waiver reduces potential liability losses, they become more attractive to liability insurance companies and probably pay lower premiums. Also, subcontractors often do not resist these requirements because they feel they lack negotiating leverage and their insurance companies are usually willing to provide the endorsement.

A few states have curbed the use of waivers of subrogation in their workers’ compensation systems. At least four states have passed laws making the requirements unenforceable, and other states allow the employer to recover from the injured employee some of the proceeds of pain and suffering lawsuits.

In the majority of states that allow waivers, contractors should work with professional insurance agents experienced in providing construction insurance. They can suggest insurance companies that will offer the needed coverages at a reasonable cost and assist with contractual issues such as waivers of subrogation. Above all, contractors must read and understand their contracts so that their agreements do not become an ugly surprise after a loss.

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