Morales v. Zenith Ins. – Wrongful Death Payout Barred by Exclusive Remedy

The exclusive remedy provisions of state workers’ compensation law bar the estate of a worker killed on the job from receiving a $9.5 million wrongful death judgment against his former boss and insurer.
That’s according to a recent ruling by the Florida Supreme Court, which, like the courts in South Carolina, recognize the exclusive remedy provision as it pertains to work-related injuries and deaths.

In Morales v. Zenith Ins. Co., decedent worker was crushed to death by a palm tree that was being unloaded form a trailer while working for a lawn maintenance firm in 1997. The man’s widow accepted a workers’ compensation settlement for her husband’s death from the employer and the insurer. The release agreement specifically indicated workers’ compensation was the exclusive remedy in the case. Prior to the conclusion of that settlement, however, plaintiff filed a wrongful death lawsuit in state court.

In a default judgment, she was awarded $9.525 million against the employer for her husband’s death. However, the insurer refused to pay that amount, citing exclusive remedy.

Our Anderson workers’ compensation attorneys know S.C. Code Ann 42-1-540 provides an employee’s rights and remedies under workers’ compensation law are to the exclusion of all others. What that means is workers who are protected by workers’ compensation insurance for work-related deaths and injuries can’t sue their employer for liability. If the company has insurance, the worker/estate doesn’t have a choice about whether to sue or whether to accept workers’ compensation – the latter is the exclusive remedy.

The same is true in Florida, where this decision was rendered.

There may be some circumstances under which a worker/estate could pursue litigation against a third party for negligence. For example, if a worker is killed in a wreck while completing a delivery for work, his family may collect workers’ compensation death benefits, but also file a lawsuit against the at-fault driver and his/her insurer.

That was not the case here.

The question certified to the state supreme court from the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals was whether Florida’s workers’ compensation exclusionary provisions in workers’ compensation law, intended to protect companies from tort liability to worker, also barred coverage of a tort judgment the worker’s estate obtained in a separate negligence lawsuit.

While the court did find the estate had standing to sue the company’s insurer for its liability policy per the terms of the judgment. However, just because one has standing does not mean the case will succeed as a matter of legal principle. In this case, the worker’s compensation exclusion excludes coverage of the estate’s tort judgment against the employer. So because the employer would not have to pay, neither would the insurer.

Beyond that, the court ruled the widow’s signed release in the settlement agreement would have precluded her collection of a tort judgment against the insurer anyway.

If you have been injured at work, contact the Lee Law Offices at 800-887-1965.

Additional Resources:
Morales v. Zenith Ins. Co., Dec. 4, 2014, Florida Suprem Court

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Firefighter Suffers Cardiac Arrest, Dies on Duty, Nov. 19, 2014, Anderson Workers’ Compensation Lawyer Blog

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