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Morales v. Zenith Ins. Co. – 11th Circuit Affirms Exclusive Remedy Provision

In a decision aligned with that of the Florida Supreme Court, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals – the same one that oversees the review of Georgia cases – backed the exclusive remedy provision of workers’ compensation law as the sole source of compensation for a deceased worker’s family.
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The exclusive remedy provision – which is woven into workers’ compensation laws in all 50 states – strips workers of the right to sue employers, even when the incident leading to injury or death was the result of negligence. Rare exceptions are made in certain states when it can be shown an employer displayed wanton or reckless disregard for the safety of workers. However, in most cases, workers and their families will be limited to workers’ compensation benefits from an employer.

Some situations may be ripe for civil litigation against a third-party wrongdoer, but that will depend heavily on the underlying circumstances.

In the case of Morales v. Zenith Ins. Co., a jury awarded a $9.5 million liability judgment against the employer’s insurance company to the worker’s estate for his on-the-job death. However, the 11th Circuit’s ruling prevents that judgment from being paid to the worker’s estate.

The worker was killed after being crushed by a palm tree that was unloaded form a trailer back in 1997. His widow received a workers’ compensation settlement from his former landscaping company employer, which paid a total of $100,000 in workers’ compensation benefits.

In that settlement agreement, widow signed a release affirming workers’ compensation was the exclusive remedy against employer for her husband’s death. However, she filed a separate wrongful death lawsuit that was still pending at the time the settlement was reached. Subsequently, the jury awarded its multi-million dollar judgment against the landscaping company in 2005.

The case had been appealed to the 11th Circuit in 2013, but the federal court requested the Florida Supreme Court clarify whether state law allows company liability provisions to bar coverage for claims that might be covered under workers’ compensation. The state high court ruled late last year that exclusivity rules in the state pertaining to workers’ comp would be applicable in the instant case.

It was on this basis of established exclusive remedy principles the 11th Circuit ruled the insurer is not liable to cover the sizable judgment.

Our experienced Atlanta workers’ compensation attorneys recognize that such benefits may be small compared to what one could attain in a civil case. The trade-off is they are all-but-guaranteed, so long as it’s shown the injury/death arose out of and in the course of his or her employment. Proof of negligence is not required.

In Georgia, employers have several continuing obligations after an employee’s work-related death. The company must cover any medical expenses incurred by the worker prior to death. It must also cover reasonable burial expenses. Additionally, the company must continue to pay benefits to the surviving dependents of the worker.

A dependent spouse can receive up to $125,000 under state law, while dependent children will receive benefits until the age of 18. Child beneficiaries may receive benefits until age 22 if he or she is enrolled as a full-time student in college and is in good standing there.

For information on Atlanta work injury compensation, contact J. Franklin Burns, P.C., at 1-404-303-7770.

Additional Resources:
Morales v. Zenith Ins. Co., Jan. 22, 2015, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit
More Blog Entries:
Presley v. Dalton Logistics: Extraterritorial Workplace Injury Issues, Nov. 30, 2015, Georgia Work Injury Lawyer Blog