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Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Examines Employer Immunity Under the Massachusetts Workers’ Compensation Act — Estate of Moulton v. Puopolo

Photo: Gavel by creationc at stock.xchng

Photo: Gavel by creationc at stock.xchng

Hyannis and Portsmouth communities know that accidents may happen while at work, and they know worker’s compensation laws will help them with their injuries and loss of work. However, not all workplace injuries are caused by accidents and may be caused by the willful and malicious acts of another person. Some jobs deal with violent individuals and can be the subject of injuries from workplace violence. These injuries are also covered under workers’ compensation laws.

Workplace violence is the subject matter of Estate of Moulton v. Puopolo, a recent Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decision. In the case, a twenty five year old treatment counselor employed at a charitable mental health facility had been violently attacked and murdered by a patient.

Employers in Massachusetts offer workers’ compensation to employees that will provide financial assistance for work-related injuries. Workers’ compensation helps cover medical and rehabilitation expenses as well as a percentage of lost wages.

Workers’ compensation affords a quid pro quo to employers. The employer provides compensation for work-related injuries without an employee having to prove fault in exchange for the employee giving up the right to sue an employer for the injuries. This barring of personal injury or wrongful death law suits against an employer is termed the exclusivity provision. Under Mass. Gen. Laws CH. 152 Section 24 (“CH.152”), an employee can waive the exclusivity provision in writing at the time they are hired, but they give up the right to workers’ compensation.

This exclusivity provision barred the estate, in Estate of Moulton v. Puopolo, from bringing a law suit against the mental health facility for personal injury or wrongful death. Not stopping there, the estate brought a wrongful death and breach of fiduciary duty claim against several directors on the board of the charity. The complaint argued that the directors’ operating policies caused the counselor’s death by failing to screen patients for a history of violence, failing to provide protection and training, and failing to inform the employees of a dangerous patient.

The director defendants brought a motion to dismiss the law suit based on the immunity per the exclusivity provision. The supreme judicial court held that the directors were immune based upon the director defendants being employers and found no breach of fiduciary duty.

Director Defendants are Employers
First, the court needed to look at whether a charity falls within the workers’ compensation act, which was a case of first impression. The statute provides an immunity for “nonprofit entities…exclusively staffed by volunteers.” The court held that by explicitly excluding charities staffed by volunteers, the legislature intended to consider charities with paid employees as employers.

Whether directors are employers falls under the corporate law, and according to Mass. Gen. Laws CH. 156D, a corporation “acts through its board of directors.” The actions of the directors and the corporation are one and the same, which give the directors the immunity. Even more, the court elucidated that, even if the directors were separate, the estates argument essentially states that the directors should be liable for setting policies that are employer policies in nature. The court dismissed the suit against the directors for having immunity under exclusivity provision.

Fiduciary Duty
The estate also argued that the directors owe a fiduciary to duty to its employees and the general public. The fiduciary duty is the highest standard of care one party can owe to another in the US legal system. A fiduciary has a duty of loyalty to the other party above all other relationships. The court recognized that the special relationship required for a fiduciary relationship does not exist between a corporation’s directors and its employees. Directors are not acting in the interests of the employee that require the trust and confidence of a fiduciary relationship.

The estate also argued that the directors owed a fiduciary relationship to the general public, and by allowing a known violent person on the premises, they violated that relationship. A charitable corporation serves the public interest, failing that duty is a breach of its fiduciary duty to the public. However, as the court noted, an employee does not have standing to bring such a claim. It is the exclusive duty of the Attorney General, who protects the public interest, to bring claims against a charity for violating the public trust. The court dismissed the claim against the directors because of the immunity in the exclusivity provision and because they did not owe a fiduciary duty to the employee.

While the court, in this case, did not find an exception to the exclusivity provision, it is important to note that they heard the case. Just because your employer tells you they are immune to wrongful death claim does not mean that there is not an exception. If you have been injured on the job, it is recommended that you speak with a local personal injury lawyer about the accident and your injuries.

If you have suffered from a work related injury, we can ensure that you do not settle for less than the compensation you deserve.

Local attorney, John C. Manoog III, has extensive experience handling Worksite Accidents and Workers’ Compensation claims. For a free initial consultation, call the office at 888-262-6664 or reach us by email. There is always someone available to talk to you about your case.

Related Blog Posts:
Massachusetts Personal Injury and Exceptions to the ‘Going and Coming’ Rule — In Re Carbone’s Case, Dec. 19, 2013, Cape Cod Injury Lawyer Blog

Hyannis Construction Accident Underscores New Changes to OSHA Reporting, Nov. 5, 2013, Cape Cod Injury Lawyer Blog