By Rachel Baldauf
Robeson County sheriff’s deputy Stephen Matthew Lassiter was off duty but directing traffic at a construction site on Interstate 95 north of St. Pauls just after midnight on March 28, 2019, when he was hit by a pick-up truck.
A month later, when Lassiter filed for workers’ compensation benefits, the Robeson County Sheriff’s Office and Truesdell, the construction company managing the site, both argued that Lassiter was not employed by them at the time of the accident and refused to pay his medical bills. So Lassiter sued.
On Tuesday, the N.C. Court of Appeals ruled that the sheriff’s office and the construction company are responsible for paying the expenses. The night of the accident, Lassiter was airlifted to a hospital in Florence, South Carolina, where he was treated for severe injuries including a concussion. He has since had two surgeries.
The unanimous ruling from a three-judge panel could offer clarity about who is responsible when an off-duty officer is injured while performing typical law-enforcement duties for a private company. Many officers do off-duty work, including traffic control and security, to supplement their incomes.
Robert Davis, the attorney for Robeson County, said the ruling is especially important as the N.C. Department of Transportation hires construction companies to complete planned upgrades along I-95. Crews are widening most of I-95 between mile marker 13, at the I-74 interchange in Robeson, to Exit 81 in Johnston County.
Initially, Robeson County had argued that Lassiter was only employed by Truesdell at the time of the accident. But the county changed its position, saying he was employed by the sheriff’s office and Truesdell.
Davis said he was pleased with the judges’ ruling. “The county will feel more comfortable in allowing [deputies] to do that [off-duty work] knowing that we don’t have the full exposure if there’s an accident,” he said.
A 2021 ruling by the North Carolina Industrial Commission, a state agency that handles workers’ compensation claims, said the Robeson County Sheriff’s Office was solely responsible for Lassiter’s medical bills. The Court of Appeals decision affirmed the sheriff’s office’s responsibility but held that the construction company is liable as well.
“My client and I are thrilled that after years of litigation the Court of Appeals has ruled in our favor,” Stephen McIntyre, an attorney who represented Lassiter, said in a statement. “We still have additional issues to resolve in the case, and we will continue to pursue justice for Mr. Lassiter.”
Truesdell Corporation was hired by the N.C. Department of Transportation to complete work on bridges along I-95. Under an NCDOT contract, Truesdell was mandated to use law enforcement officers to divert traffic at the construction site.
The day of the accident, a captain in the sheriff’s office asked Lassiter to help direct traffic. Lassiter accepted, according to the judges’ ruling.
Even though he was off duty, Lassiter was a sheriff’s office employee at the time, the judges ruled. Lassiter wore his badge and carried a service weapon while directing traffic and “was hired on the basis of his official status as a police officer.”
The judges also ruled that an “implied contract” of employment existed between Lassiter and Truesdell. Officers directing traffic at the construction site filled out W-9 forms and timesheets for Truesdell, which paid them $55 an hour.
Truesdell can appeal the decision to the N.C. Supreme Court.