Thursday, January 25, 2024

 The Appellate Court of Maryland affirms dismissal of wrongful death suit holding that the Worker's Compensation Act is the exclusive remedy for non-dependent tort actions. 

Summer Ledford v. Jenway Contracting, Inc.

Appellate Court of Maryland, filed. November 30, 2023 (Wright, J.)

        In Ledford v. Jenway Contracting, the Appellate Court of Maryland considered whether the Worker’s Compensation Act barred a non-dependent from bringing a wrongful death tort action against the decedent’s employer. Ultimately, the Appellate Court held that the Act barred the non-dependent’s tort action and affirmed the Circuit Court’s dismissal of the wrongful death suit.

        The case arose from the appellant’s late father’s tragic death that occurred while he was working for the Appellee. It was undisputed that the father’s death “arose out of and in the course of his employment.” The Appellant, the decedent’s forty-seven-year-old daughter, had no right to benefits under the Worker’s Compensation Act as she was not a dependent of her late father. She filed a wrongful death negligence action against the appellee-employer in the Circuit Court for Baltimore County. The employer thereafter moved to dismiss the action, contending that the Appellant had no viable tort action against the employer because the Worker’s Compensation Act provided the “exclusive” remedy for damages stemming from her decedent-father’s work-related injury.  The Circuit Court agreed and dismissed the Appellant’s action for failure to state a claim.

        On Appeal, the Appellate Court of Maryland traced the history of the Worker’s Compensation Act, enacted in 1914. Prior to the Worker’s Compensation Act, the worker could sue the employer for negligence and the employer could likewise assert defenses such as contributory negligence and assumption of the risk.  The Act’s passage reflected a “compromise between employees’ rights to pursue common law and other statutory damages for their injuries, and the burden to employers of having to provide workers’ compensation benefits.” See Hauch v. Connor, 295 Md. 120, 127 (1983)). Under the Act, the employer is required to pay, regardless of fault. In exchange, the employer is shielded from common law liability as the Act is the exclusive remedy for injured employees and their dependents, also referred to as the “exclusivity provision.” There are two exceptions to the exclusivity provision: 1) where an employer fails to provide compensation in accordance with the Act and 2) where an employer deliberately injures or kills a covered employee. Neither exception applied to the circumstances before the Ledford court.

        While acknowledging that neither Maryland appellate court has encountered the precise issue (whether the exclusivity provision applies to a non-dependent), the Ledford court recognized that Maryland’s appellate courts have considered “whether a wrongful death plaintiff is permitted to bring a wrongful death claim when a covered employee is killed in the course of his or her employment.” The court cited two examples, Koche v. Cox and Austin v. Thrifty Diversified, Inc., both standing for the proposition that, where an injury arises out of or in the course of employment, the sole remedy is the Worker’s Compensation Act. Applying these cases and the language of the Act to the Appellant’s circumstances, the court concluded that the appellee-employer’s liability was “exclusively within the worker’s compensation act” and further reasoned that when a covered employee is injured or killed in the course of his or her employment, the employer’s liability and any recovery resulting from that liability is exclusive to the Act, regardless of whether an otherwise proper wrongful death plaintiff is entitled to benefits under the Act.” (emphasis added).

-Joseph Kavanaugh, Associate

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