Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Decision Provides Guidance as to Whether the Workers’ Compensation Act Precludes Recovery Under the Wrongful Death Act

In Massachusetts, if someone dies due to the negligence of another, recovery for damages like lost wages, loss of companionship, and funeral expenses may be available through the Wrongful Death Act. The Wrongful Death Act allows recovery if a willful, wanton, or reckless act caused the death of a person who would have been eligible for personal injury damages if he or she had survived. If there was malicious, willful, wanton, or reckless conduct or gross negligence by the at-fault party, punitive damages may be available.

Earlier this year, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court issued a ruling in Estate of Moulton v. Puopolo, which prevented the estate of a counselor from pursuing damages under the Wrongful Death Act. The counselor was killed at a mental health clinic by a patient who had a long history of criminal acts and violent behavior. The pleadings alleged willful, wanton, reckless, and malicious conduct that constituted gross negligence by the collective defendants. The defendants included the directors of the mental health institution, psychiatric consultants involved in the patient’s admission, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and the patient himself. The pleadings claimed that the directors should have known the patient’s history of violence and that the directors failed to enact policies to handle a patient with such violent tendencies. The estate left out the hospital because the hospital was the direct employer and immune from suit under the Workers’ Compensation Act.

The director defendants appealed the lower court’s decision, which refused to extend the immunity from suit extended to employers under the Workers’ Compensation Act. The court first looked at the history of the Workers’ Compensation Act, which was designed to provide quick payment for injuries suffered by employees. In exchange for quicker, more assured recovery, employees are not allowed to pursue personal injury actions against their respective employers. Employers are provided with immunity from personal injury suits so that they aren’t entrenched in time-consuming and expensive litigation.

The ultimate question was whether the directors, in their role as part-time directors for a charitable organization, would be considered employers under the Workers’ Compensation Act. The Supreme Judicial Court analyzed the explicit provision of the Act that excludes non-profit entities exclusively staffed by volunteers from the definition of “employer”. However, the hospital in question was not exclusively staffed by volunteers, and the corporate decision-making process did not create personal liability for the individual directors. The Supreme Judicial Court ultimately agreed with the defendant directors that they are employers for the purpose of the exclusivity provision of the Workers’ Compensation Act and should have been removed from the lawsuit.

Regardless of whether you have been injured in the workplace or in a car wreck, the experienced Massachusetts personal injury attorneys at the Law Office of James K. Meehan are here to help you find the best course of action to maximize your recovery. We understand the stress of mounting utility and medical bills as you or your family member recovers from an injury, and we will aggressively litigate your case to provide you with the damages you deserve. For a free, confidential consultation, call our office today at 508.822.8006.

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