Massachusetts Court Rules Against Employee in Workers’ Compensation Wrongful Death Case

In a recent case, Estate of Moulton v. Puopolo, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial court handed down a landmark decision for workers’ compensation claims in Massachusetts.

The case arose out of an incident in which a 25-year-old female employee, who was working as a residential treatment counselor at a non-profit mental health and rehabilitation facility, was left alone with one of the facility’s residents, during which time the resident assaulted the employee and thus caused her death. Following her death, the employee’s estate brought a wrongful death action, essentially alleging that the employer was liable for the woman’s death because the employer failed to adopt proper policies to screen clients, and that as a result of this failure, the plaintiff (employee) was left alone with the client, who then killed her.

In a typical wrongful death claim, if the plaintiff’s estate had been able to prove that there was some sort of negligence (or other type of legally blameworthy behavior) on the defendant’s behalf, the plaintiff could potentially have recovered a monetary award. However, in this case, the court found that because the plaintiff was working in her capacity as an employee, the typical civil claim that may have been made is superseded entirely by the Workers’ Compensation Act, which the court points out is the sole avenue available for employees’ alleged injuries.

As the court put it, “in cases in which an employee sues an employer for wrongful death damages, the provisions of that statute preclude any civil action for wrongful death of an employee who is subject to the provisions of the workers’ compensation laws.”

Furthermore, the decision states that the same shield against liability in this civil suit applies to the individually named defendants in the suit, since they were also working in the capacity of their employment for the company. The Workers’ Compensation Act precludes recovery against the employer in actions for negligence, recklessness, gross negligence, and willful and wanton misconduct. Additionally, the compensation afforded to employees under the Act is the exclusive remedy for injuries to an employee suffered in the course of employment, regardless of the wrongfulness of the employer’s conduct or the foreseeability of harm. The reason for the exclusivity is to prevent individuals from recovering both under the Act and through a separate lawsuit, which would amount to a sort of double recovery.

However, the decision does note the ability of potential plaintiffs to waive their rights to workers’ compensation under the Act by following specific requirements at the time of hire, thus preserving the right to proceed with a civil action against the employer should the necessity arise. In this case, however, the court stated there was no indication that the plaintiff in this suit did waive her workers’ compensation protection, and therefore the civil case against the employer cannot proceed, and workers’ compensation is the sole remedy available to the plaintiff’s estate.

If you or a loved one have been injured or become ill due to an incident or incidents at work, you should  contact the experienced Boston workers’ compensation attorneys at Pulgini & Norton today, and schedule a free consultation. Contact us with a brief description of your circumstances. You can reach us through this website or by phone at any one of our Downtown Boston, Hyde Park, or Braintree, Massachusetts office locations.

More Blog Posts:

Hasbro Fails on Appeal to Discontinue Workers’ Compensation Benefits, Massachusetts Workers’ Compensation Lawyer Blog, published December 22, 2014

FDA Criticizes Massachusetts Regulations Aimed At Zohydro, Massachusetts Workers’ Compensation Lawyer Blog, published November 17, 2014

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