Kay v. Wiggins – Maine Wrongful Death Lawsuit Barred by Workers’ Compensation Exclusivity

In most situations wherein someone’s injury or death is caused by the negligence of another, a civil lawsuit may be in order. However, if the injured party was working or acting in the course and scope of employment at the time of the accident, the case could become more complicated. 

Workers’ compensation laws in Maine contain something known as an exclusive remedy provision. This means that the only remedy one has against his or her own employer for work-related accidents, injuries and illnesses is workers’ compensation, which typically covers medical bills and a portion of lost wages, but nothing else. There can sometimes be grounds for a third-party lawsuit against others aside from the employer. There are also situations in which entities wrongly label themselves as “employers” when in fact they are not, in which case litigation is still appropriate.

These are matters that must be handled by an experienced Portland injury lawyer. 

In the recent case of Estate of Key v. Estate of Wiggins, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court was asked to decide whether a lower court erred in granting summary judgment to the estate of man whose employee was killed while driving a rental truck on-the-job. The worker’s family sued the employer’s estate (after he died of unrelated causes) as well as the rental truck company. But the lower court ruled the claim against the estate was barred by the Workers’ Compensation Act exclusivity provisions and that the rental truck didn’t proximately cause plaintiff’s injuries.

According to court records, decedent employee began work at a furniture rental business owned by decedent employer in 2008. As part of its regular business, the company maintained an agreement with the truck rental company to transfer rental trucks to and from locations in exchange for payment. As part of his work, decedent employee regularly transferred trucks at his boss’s instruction.

One day in December 2011, decedent employee was instructed to transport a truck. The worker said he didn’t feel comfortable doing so because of bad weather conditions. His employer then told him it was Ok to go in the morning. Employee followed these instructions and in so doing, the truck hit an icy patch and slid off the road. The worker was ejected and died of his injuries.

His employer died two years later of unrelated causes.

Worker’s family filed a complaint against the employer, alleging wrongful death. The family sought both compensatory and punitive damages. The complaint repeatedly referred to decedent worker as an “employee” of defendant.

The employer’s estate filed a motion to dismiss, arguing the claim was barred by Maine’s Workers’ Compensation Act. Included in that request was proof of state-accepted workers’ compensation insurance that was effective on the date of the accident. The lower court granted defense motion to dismiss. Additionally, the court granted the rental truck company’s motion for summary judgment, finding no genuine issues of material fact indicating the truck had caused the crash.

Plaintiff appealed, but the Maine Supreme Judicial Court affirmed, citing 39-A M.R.S. §§ 104, 403(1), the state workers’ compensation exclusivity provision. That statute indicates the only remedy a worker has for damages for a work-related injury against an employer who pays for workers’ compensation are those benefits. Here, plaintiff wasn’t even trying to argue that decedent was not an employee because several times in the complaint, he was even listed as such.

With regard to the rental truck company, plaintiff had argued the company was vicariously liable for the negligent actions of the decedent worker’s employer. However, the court found the workers’ compensation act also prohibited this action. Because the employer couldn’t be held liable, the rental truck company couldn’t be held vicariously liable.

To learn more about filing a wrongful death lawsuit in Portland, contact Peter Thompson & Associates at 1-800-804-2004 for a confidential consultation to discuss your rights.

Additional Resources:

Estate of Key v. Estate of Wiggins, July 12, 2016, Maine Supreme Judicial Court

More Blog Entries:

Estate of Summers v. Nisbet – Maine High Court Restores Widow’s Priority in Fire Death Lawsuit, June 30, 2016, Portland Wrongful Death Lawyer Blog

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