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Wrongful Death Claim Yields to Workers’ Compensation Act

teamwork-2-1237611-mStephanie Moulton was employed by a residential treatment counselor at North Suffolk Mental health Association, Inc. in Chelsea, Massachusetts. The organization contracted with the Commonwealth to provide various mental health services to individuals affiliated with the Department of Mental Heath and the Department of Correction. On January 20, 2011, while at the organization’s treatment facility in Revere, Ms. Moulton was brutually assaulted by one of the facility’s residents. As a result of the vicious attack she sustained, Ms. Moulton was taken to the hospital where she ultimately succumbed to death. After her passing, the Estate of Stephanie Moulton brought suit against the director of the organization, the patient-tortfeasor, two consultants that admitted the patient, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

The Estate brought claims against the Defendants under the Wrongful Death statute in Massachusetts. The complaint alleged that the patient-tortfeasor had a history of convictions and violent crimes as well as mental health history showcasing a violent propensity toward others. The complaint further alleged that counselors, such as Ms. Moulton, were made unaware of the history of patients such as the tortfeasor, and were therefore unequipped to deal with such patients. The complaint alleges that if the director defendants had allowed or required a proper examination of prospective clients, and provided access to information in the possession of referring agencies indicating prospective clients’ criminal histories and previous violent tendencies, the patient-tortfeasor would not have been deemed an appropriate client for admission to North Suffolk’s Revere facility. Further, had North Suffolk employees at that facility been given information about clients’ violent backgrounds, and had they been provided adequate training, staffing, and equipment for the appropriate handling of clients with violent criminal histories and violent tendencies, the Ms. Moulton would not have been left alone with patient and she accordingly would not have been killed. 

Under the Workers’ Compensation Act of Massachusetts, where the injury which results in a death occurs during the course of employment, claims for wrongful death against the employer are barred by the exclusivity provisions of the Workers’ Compensation Act. Under the Workers’ Compensation Act, all rights and remedies shall exclude all other rights of the employee or the next kin of the employee. Only when an accident is caused by the negligence or other wrongdoing of a third party may an action for wrongful death be brought. However, if the suit is successful, the Workers’ Compensation statute provides various ways in which the employer recovers any compensation he or she paid out.

In the case referenced above, the director defendants argued that they cannot be held individually liable in a wrongful death action sustained by an employee where the facility itself cannot be liable due to the the exclusive remedy provision of the Workers’ Compensation Act. The court, in a recently issued opinion, held compensation 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. Additionally, “so long as the injuries were sustained while the employee was acting in the course of her employment, as the plaintiff alleges happened here, actions for negligence, recklessness, gross negligence, and wilful and wanton misconduct by an employer are precluded by the exclusive remedy provision.”

The directors acted at Ms. Moulton’s employer in adopting or failing to adopt the corporate policies that may or may not have led to her untimely death. As such, the Estate is barred under the exclusive remedy provision of the Workers’ Compensation Act. The motion to dismiss the complaint was allowed.

To read more about the case mentioned above, please see the Estate of Moulton v. Puopolo. In some cases, even if an individual is barred by the Workers Compensation Act from seeking redress, there may be a third party responsible or with some culpability.  If you believe you have a personal injury case, our office can help you. To schedule a free consultation with lawyer Daniel Cappetta, call our office today at (508) 969-9505 or fill out or contact form available on the right side of this page.