The estate of a residential treatment counselor who worked at a mental health clinic will not be allowed to proceed with its wrongful death action against two administrators at the facility, according to a recent ruling by the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts.
Although the ruling in Estate of Moulton v. Puopolo is technically only applicable in that state, our Asheville workers’ compensation lawyers know that the reasoning is based on a legal principle that is relevant to North Carolina injured workers and their families.
The basis of the decision is this: Workers’ compensation laws serve to act as an exclusive remedy to injuries that arise out of the course of employment. That means that eligible employers are usually immune from personal injury or wrongful death claims that result from workplace hazards. Personal injury actions and wrongful death claims resulting from work injuries must be filed against third parties other than the employer.
In this case, the 25-year-old counselor was attacked and killed by a 27-year-old mental health patient who reportedly had a history of extreme violence and had served prison time for it. According to media reports, the patient beat her, stabbed her, slit her throat and then dumped her body in a nearby parking lot.
The worker’s estate argued that as a result of the admissions and operating policies that were in effect at the time of the incident, staffers were not aware of this particular client’s violent history and were not equipped to safely handle him. Had the staffers known, the estate contended, the worker would never have been left alone with him and he might never have been admitted in the first place.
The defendant directors moved to dismiss the complaint, primarily on the grounds of immunity from the wrongful death action per workers’ compensation laws, and that, as employers, it had no fiduciary duty to the worker. That motion was initially denied, but on appeal, the state high court granted it.
The court found that the directors, in adopting or failing to adopt any provisions that might have prevented the violent act from occurring to the victim, were acting as employers. Further, as directors, they owed no fiduciary duty to the employee. Any alleged breach of fiduciary duty, the court found, would have to be sought by the states’ attorney general.
In North Carolina, similarly, workers’ compensation is the only means that an employee has to take action against an employer for work-related injuries – no matter how egregious or wrong the employer’s actions or non-actions.
Workers’ compensation laws do not allow workers to reject benefits under the act and then sue an employer for injuries sustained.
Meanwhile, news reports indicate that the decedent’s family is working to press lawmakers to introduce legislation that would require mental health workers who must have direct contact with potentially violent clients to be provided with all relevant information regarding that patient.
In the criminal case, the defendant was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. The judge presiding over that case – and even the defense – agreed that there were “systematic breakdowns” in communication and safety protocols prior to the attack.
The Occupational Safety & Hazards Administration cited the employer in 2011 for failing to provide adequate safeguards against workplace violence. For this, they were fined $7,000, and agreed to implement a “buddy system” for workers, behavior logs and an alarm system inside the building.
Contact the Carolina injury lawyers at the Lee Law Offices by calling 800-887-1965.
Estate of Moulton v. Puopolo, March 14, 2014, Massachusetts Supreme Judicia ourt
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