Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Congratulations to Associate Rima Kikani on her Recent TDR Award!

Congratulations to Associate Rima Kikani on her selection to The Daily Record’s 2019 VIP List—Very Important Professionals Successful by 40!

The Daily Record created the VIP List to recognize Maryland’s leaders who are 40 years of age and younger, based on their professional accomplishments, community service, a commitment to inspiring change, and the impact of their achievements. They are selected by an outside panel of judges, including previous winners and business leaders.

Congratulations to Ms. Kikani!

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Court of Special Appeals Determines Claimant Did Not Have the Ability to Release His Dependent’s Claim for Death Benefits

In the Matter of Bernard Collins, No. 591, September Term 2018

On February 13, 2012, Bernard Collins (“Collins”) filed a worker’s compensation claim alleging that he had developed heart disease and hypertension caused by his firefighting work for the Huntingtown Volunteer Fire Department (“Huntingtown”). Collins claimed that as of May 6, 2011, when Huntingtown was insured by Chesapeake Employers Insurance Company (“Chesapeake”), he became disabled due to his occupational disease.  Huntington and Chesapeake contested the claim. Chesapeake interpleaded Selective, which insured Huntingtown in 1998.  On March 19, 2014, the Maryland Workers’ Compensation Commission (“the Commission”) found that Collins sustained an occupational disease (heart disease and hypertension) arising out of and in the course of his employment as a firefighter, that his last injurious exposure was with Huntingtown, that he was temporarily totally disabled as of May 6, 2011, for one day, and from July 7, 2011 through July 24, 2011, and that his average weekly wage was $152.50.

Huntingtown and Chesapeake filed petitions for judicial review of the Commission’s decision disputing compensability and the date of last injurious exposure. Collins filed a cross-petition disputing the calculation of his average weekly wage.  While the appeal was pending, the parties settled the claim, and filed a stipulation of dismissal in the circuit court.  The case was remanded back to the Commission. 

The settlement agreement between the parties contained the following language:

The Claimant hereby accepts this Agreement and the aforesaid payment(s) in final compromise and settlement of any and all Claims which the Claimant, his personal representative, dependents, spouse and children or any other parties who might become beneficiaries under the Workers’ Compensation Law, might now or could hereafter have under the provision of the said Law, arising out of the aforesaid injury or disablement or the disability resulting therefrom, and does hereby, on behalf of himself and all of said other parties, release and forever discharge the Employer [Huntingtown], Chesapeake and Selective, their personal representative, heirs, successors and assigns, from all other claims of whatsoever kind which might or could hereafter arise under the Law from the said injury, disablement or disability.

Approximately two years later, Collins died from a cardiac arrest secondary to his heart disease and hypertension.  Mrs. Collins filed a “Dependent’s Claim for Death Benefits” with the Workers’ Compensation Commission.  She sought dependency benefits and reimbursement for Collins’ funeral expenses. 

The Commission held a hearing to determine, amongst other issues, whether the Settlement Agreement barred Mrs. Collins from receiving death benefits.  The Commission found that the Settlement Agreement barred Mrs. Collins’ right to survivorship/death benefits.  Mrs. Collins appealed the matter to the Circuit Court for Calvert County.  After a motions hearing, the circuit court agreed with the Commission’s findings, and granted summary judgment in favor of Huntington and Chesapeake. 

Again, the matter was appealed to the Court of Special Appeals.  The Court determined that the parties’ Settlement Agreement did not bar Mrs. Collins from obtaining death benefits for three (3) reasons.

First, §9-722 of the Labor and Employment Article of the Maryland Annotated Code states that after a claim has been filed by a covered employee or the dependents of a covered employee, a worker or his dependents may enter into an agreement for the final compromise and settlement of any current or future claim under the act.  Thus, §9-722 does not contemplate a covered worker settling and releasing his dependent’s inchoate claim for death benefits within the settlement of his claim for benefits to which he is entitled during his life.

Second, §9-722(d) of the Labor and Employment Article of the Maryland Annotated Code provides that settlement agreements are binding only upon the parties to it.  Here, Mrs. Collins was not a party to her husband’s workers’ compensation case, did not sign the Settlement Agreement that includes the release, and there is no suggestion that she participated in negotiating the Settlement Agreement.  Therefore, the Agreement was not enforceable against her.

Third, even if Collins could have unilaterally released Mrs. Collins’ claim for death benefits, which he could not, the language of the Settlement Agreement does not evince a clear intention on his part to do so, as it does not specifically mention Collins’ death resulting from Collins’ covered injury or any future claim for death benefits under the act. Although the Settlement Agreement seemed to release future claims that could “arise” from his occupational disease, a claim for death benefits accrues and arises from a covered worker’s death from the disease (or injury), not from the disease (or injury) itself.

Employers/Insurers should keep this case in mind when settling cases, especially ones in which claimants’ death is likely to be caused by a causally related injury/disease.  It is also important to keep in mind that accidental injuries have a 7-year statute of limitations on causally related deaths, while occupational diseases do not have a statute of limitations. Understanding these principles should allow Employer/Insurers to better understand their exposure for each claim.

-Ashley Bond, Associate Attorney