A family who suffers the untimely death of a loved one due to the negligence of another person or company has the right to pursue damages. However, the avenues to collect those damages may be limited if the injury or death occurred in the course of one’s employment.
In Florida, most companies are required by law to secure workers’ compensation insurance, which establishes no-fault coverage for situations in which someone is hurt or killed at work. That means the worker/surviving family doesn’t have to prove the company was negligent in order to collect benefits (based on the worker’s salary).
This comes with one major catch: Exclusive remedy. That means workers/surviving family members who collect benefits from the company’s insurer cannot then sue the company for damages related to the firm’s negligence in causing the worker’s death. Workers generally don’t have a choice about whether to accept workers’ compensation or pursue litigation. Exceptions only exist in cases where the company did not have workers’ compensation insurance, the worker was an independent contractor or the negligence rises to the level of reckless disregard for human life almost certain to cause serious injury or death.
Our Fort Myers work injury lawyers know there may also be opportunities to pursue third-party liability actions against an entity other than the insurer, but that depends on the circumstances of the case.
Beyond that, the exclusive remedy provision of Florida’s workers’ compensation law is firmly entrenched, and was further underscored recently with the Florida Supreme Court decision in Morales v. Zenith Insurance Co. This was a ruling issued following a certified question submitted by a federal appeals court, which was asked to weigh a wrongful death lawsuit filed by a deceased Florida worker’s widow and the workers’ compensation/general liability insurer of the company for which he worked.
According to court records, decedent was a lawn maintenance professional who was killed while loading a large palm tree onto a truck. Not long after his death, his widow filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the company. Some time after that, she entered into an agreement to accept workers’ compensation benefits. In do doing, she signed a contract releasing the firm of any further liability in the case.
Nevertheless, the wrongful death lawsuit proceeded, and ultimately resulted in a default judgment against the former employer for $9.5 million. The company was defunct by that point. It’s former insurer, however, was not. Plaintiff sought to compel the insurer to pay the judgment.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit knew workers’ compensation exclusive remedy is intended to protect employers from tort liability for workers’ injuries. But what about when a judgment was already secured? The court could not find case law addressing this fact, and thus certified the question to the state supreme court.
The court ruled that while plaintiff would have standing to pursue the insurer for a judgment against its former insured, the state’s exclusive remedy provision should have barred the wrongful death lawsuit in the first place. But even if it didn’t, the court found, the widow waived that right in her workers’ compensation settlement agreement.
If you have lost someone in a work-related accident in Florida, it’s imperative to contact an experienced lawyer as soon as possible to explore your legal options for compensation.
For more information on work injury claims in Fort Myers, call Chalik & Chalik at (954) 476-1000 or 1 (800) 873-9040.
Morales v. Zenith Insurance Co., Dec. 4, 2014, Florida Supreme Court
More Blog Entries:
Elliot v. GEICO – Underinsured Motorist Coverage Set-Offs, Nov. 26, 2014, Fort Myers Work Injury Lawyer Blog