Massachusetts Appeals Court Issues Ruling in Third-Party Lawsuit Following Workers’ Compensation Injury

In a concise opinion, the Massachusetts Appeals Court confirmed a lower court ruling regarding a wrongful termination following the commencement of a legal action related to a compensable workers’ compensation claim.

At issue in Santarpia v. Senior Residential Care, Mass. App. Ct. (2014), was an employee’s allegation that she was wrongfully terminated in contravention of public policy as retaliation for pursuing compensation following an at-work injury.

The plaintiff, a nurse, slipped and fell on some water that was leaking from a ceiling where she worked. Following the accident, she filed a workers’ compensation claim and received benefits. Two years later, she contacted an attorney regarding the case and was referred to a third attorney.

The plaintiff disputed whether she had retained the first attorney or actually authorized him to act on her behalf. In any event, following the discussion, the first attorney sent a letter to the third party, stating that if a response was not received within a certain number of days, a legal action would be taken. The employee was fired as a result of this letter.

The court reviewed the relevant public policy considerations. The court found that her lawsuit against the third party, a building landlord, was not a covered act within the public policy protections.

The point of public policy prohibitions against retaliation for seeking workers’ compensation benefits and other legal protections related to employment are obvious. As a society, we do not want to deter employees from seeking those protections or benefits to which they are legally entitled. Therefore, we offer some protections in the form of wrongful termination causes of action to ensure that employers are not using termination as a means of preventing employees from asserting their rights.

In this case, however, the court held that the subsequent lawsuit, as against the landlord, was not within the general protections that would have been afforded if the employee was fired in relation to filing for the workers’ compensation claim with her employer directly. In fact, the employee had filed and recovered the workers’ compensation benefits to which she was entitled. Additionally, the court found that since she was an at-will employee, meaning she could be terminated without cause, there was no need to extend the protections in this particular case.

It is interesting to consider whether the court would have ruled differently if the plaintiff had not recovered workers’ compensation benefits. Massachusetts law states that workers’ compensation benefits will be the only form of recovery against an employer, unless at the time of hiring the employee signs a waiver to these benefits, declaring their desire to retain their right to sue at common law, should an incident occur.

If you become injured or ill as a result of something that happens at work, you want to ensure your best chance at securing compensation for your injuries. The experienced Massachusetts workers’ compensation lawyers at Pulgini & Norton offer comprehensive guidance and representation in these matters. We can assist you throughout the entire workers’ compensation claim process. Call our office today at (781) 843-2200, or you can contact us online in order to schedule an initial consultation.

More Blog Posts:

Massachusetts Appeals Court Fails to Find Partnership in Workers’ Compensation Hopeful Case, Massachusetts Workers’ Compensation Lawyer Blog, published May 13, 2015

Proposed Amendment to Massachusetts Workers’ Compensation Laws Could Help Burn Victims, Massachusetts Workers’ Compensation Lawyer Blog, published May 6, 2015

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