A new Maryland Appellate Court decision, Ledford v. Jenway Contracting, Inc., involved a wrongful death lawsuit filed against an employer by the daughter of a deceased employee. The employee had died in a work-related incident.
The defendant argued that the exclusive remedy for plaintiffs was the Maryland Workers’ Compensation Act exclusively governs plaintiffs’ claims.
The plaintiffs argued this is ridiculous. Why? Because dependents of employees relinquish their traditional legal right to pursue litigation in favor of a guaranteed statutory entitlement to death benefits. Non-dependents get nothing. So how can it be that non-dependent plaintiffs would forgo their right to legal action in return for an “exclusive right” that compensates them with no monetary reparation for the wrongful death of a family member?
That is a tough argument to tackle. But the court tackled it with ease because, justice notwithstanding, the law frustratingly is what it is.
Facts of Summer Ledford v. Jenway Contracting, Inc., 454 Md. 1 (2023)
The underlying facts of the case involve an employee who died following a work-related accident. The employee’s adult daughter subsequently filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the employer. The employer responded by filing a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing that the claim was barred by the Maryland Workers’ Compensation Act. The lower court agreed with the employer and dismissed the case with prejudice.
The Wrongful Death Act
The Maryland Wrongful Death Act, established in 1852, sought to address the limitations of common law in providing justice for the families of tort victims. This Act was a response to the common law’s inability to offer tort recovery after a victim’s death. It enabled the deceased’s beneficiaries or relatives to seek damages for the loss of support or other benefits they would have received if the deceased had not died due to someone else’s negligence.
Today, the Act allows legal action against anyone whose wrongful actions result in someone’s death. Defined under the Act, a wrongful act includes any act, neglect, or default, even a felonious one, that would have warranted a legal claim and damages if the victim had survived. The beneficiaries of such a claim include the spouse, parents, and children of the deceased. If none of these individuals are present, the claim extends to any blood or marriage relatives who were substantially dependent on the deceased.
Damages awarded under the Act are proportional to the injury caused by the wrongful death. In instances where the deceased is survived by a non-minor child, the compensation is not restricted to pecuniary loss or benefit. Instead, it can cover a range of non-economic damages such as mental anguish, emotional pain, loss of companionship, care, guidance, and other similar forms of support.
Employer Negligently Kills Someone
Yet when a wrongful death is caused by the negligence of the employer, all bets are off. The Workers’ Compensation Act takes control of the case.
There are, it is important to keep in mind, however, two exceptions. The first exception applies if an employer does not provide compensation as mandated by the Act. In such a case, the affected employee, or in the event of their death, their personal representative, has the right to either file a compensation claim under the Act or sue the employer for damages as per Md. Code Ann. Lab. & Emp. § 9-509(c)(1).
The second exception occurs if an employer intentionally harms or causes the death of an employee. Under these circumstances, the injured employee, or in the case of death, their surviving spouse, child, or dependent, can choose to either seek compensation through the Act or initiate a lawsuit for damages against the employer, as stated in Lab. & Emp. § 9-509(d).
But except for these two rarely used exceptions, the comp statute restricts any other forms of remedy and liability for both employers and employees covered by the Act, regarding any injuries that occur during employment.
On appeal, the appellate court affirmed the lower court’s decision. The court’s ruling focused on the interpretation and application of the Workers’ Compensation Act in relation to wrongful death claims. Here is the gist of the opinion:
Exclusive Remedy Provision of the Workers’ Compensation Act: A central tenet of the Workers’ Compensation Act is the principle of exclusivity. This means that for injuries or deaths occurring in the course of employment, the Workers’ Compensation Act is the sole avenue for redress. This provision is designed to balance the interests of employers and employees: employees (or their dependents) receive guaranteed and potentially expedited compensation without the need for litigation, while employers gain immunity from tort claims, provided they comply with the Act.
Applicability to Non-Dependents: The case presented a unique situation where a wrongful death claim was filed by a non-dependent of the deceased employee. The court ruled that even non-dependents are subject to the Act’s exclusivity provision. This interpretation is grounded in the understanding that the Act’s purpose is to cover all claims arising from workplace injuries or deaths, regardless of the claimant’s dependent status. The court’s reasoning is pretty simple: allowing non-dependents to bypass the Act and pursue wrongful death claims in civil court would undermine the Act’s comprehensive scope and the legislative intent behind its exclusivity.
Statutory Exceptions: The court acknowledged that the Workers’ Compensation Act has specific exceptions where civil claims might be pursued (e.g., deliberate injury by an employer or failure of the employer to secure compensation). However, in the absence of these exceptions, the Act remains the exclusive remedy.
Interpretation Consistent with Legislative Intent: The court stressed the importance of interpreting the Act in a manner consistent with legislative intent. The Act was designed to provide a streamlined, fault-independent system of compensation for workplace injuries and deaths. Allowing wrongful death suits outside of this system, especially by individuals who are not direct dependents, could disrupt this carefully constructed balance.
Constitutional Considerations: The court also considered constitutional aspects, like the Maryland Declaration of Rights, in its analysis. It concluded that denying a wrongful death claim to a non-dependent does not violate constitutional rights, as the legislation provides a different form of remedy (albeit non-monetary for non-dependents) and is within the legislature’s authority to modify or limit common law rights. The truth is that the comp statute might violate constitutional rights to a trial. But that ship sailed long ago.
Policy Considerations: The ruling reflects a policy decision to prioritize the stability and predictability of the workers’ compensation system over the potential for broader tort claims. This approach aligns with the general policy underpinning workers’ compensation laws, which trade the potential for larger tort damages for a more certain, but limited, recovery under the Act.
Reaction to the Opinion
Great hustle by plaintiff’s workers compensation lawyer to battle this out. But no one can be surprised at the holding. The Workers’ Compensation Act provides exclusive remedies for injuries or deaths occurring during employment. Period. This exclusivity applies irrespective of a claimant’s eligibility for benefits under the Act.
The court emphasized that this is all critical to balance guaranteed compensation for employees or their dependents against the employers’ immunity from tort liability in work-related incidents.
Of course, in this case we have to turn the other way on the “balance” part of the whole thing because, as we said at the outset, there is nothing to balance for a child who lost their parent and is getting no compensation.
In the end, the court’s interpretation aligns with the legislative intent of the Workers’ Compensation Act – albeit perhaps mindless intent in this case.