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Workers’ Compensation is Survivors’ Only Recourse Against Employer for Death of Mental Health Counselor Killed by Patient

In adjudicating a claim for injuries at work, a court must decide not only whether the injuries in fact occurred at work but also whether the allegedly responsible party was the worker’s employer. If so, the workers’ compensation system provides the sole remedy, and the civil courts have no jurisdiction.

The Massachusetts Supreme Court in a recent case ruled that the estate of a counselor killed by a resident at the mental health facility where she worked could not sue the directors of the nonprofit that administered the facility for wrongful death and punitive damages. This was despite the claim that the directors were responsible because they voted to adopt policies and procedures that allegedly led to the counselor’s death.

The court’s rationale for dismissing the case for lack of civil jurisdiction was that the board of directors acted as the counselor’s employer, and, under the exclusive remedies provision of the Workers’ Compensation Act, the individual directors were immune from suit for injuries sustained by the counselor in the course of her employment.

The employee, a 25-year-old woman, was a residential treatment counselor at North Suffolk Mental Health Association, Inc. (North Suffolk), a charitable corporation providing mental health and rehabilitation services. North Suffolk has contracts with several Massachusetts agencies, including the Department of Mental Health and the Department of Corrections. These client referrals contribute substantially to its $30 million in annual revenue.

While at work at North Suffolk’s Revere treatment facility, the counselor was alone with a resident who assaulted her and inflicted injuries so severe that she died. The counselor’s estate, as the plaintiff, alleged that the North Suffolk directors had put in effect admissions and operating policies that led to staff, including both those who evaluated prospective residents for admission and counselors working directly with residents, being unaware of this particular resident’s lengthy history of convictions for violent crimes and his general tendency toward violence.

The trial court denied the defendants’ motion to dismiss, and the Supreme Court transferred the case on its own motion on an interlocutory appeal. The court took the case on interlocutory appeal because the directors’ immunity defense was a side issue to the merits of the claims at issue in the lawsuit, and it needed to be decided before the substantive action could proceed or be redirected to the proper jurisdiction.

The director defendants claimed that they were immune from a civil lawsuit because North Suffolk was immune as the counselor’s employer. The court agreed that the individual directors had no individual authority to act on behalf of North Suffolk but only as part of the body of directors acting as the board. Therefore, where corporate decisions were concerned, the board and the corporation were one and the same.

The plaintiff contended that the individual directors did not act collectively as a board because some of them had conflicts of interest that influenced their decision-making. The court rejected this line of reasoning on the basis that claims for negligence, gross negligence, and even willful misconduct by an employer are all covered under the exclusive remedy provision of the Workers’ Compensation Act, with no exceptions for self-dealing or self-interest. However, compensation is doubled for acts of willful misconduct.

For all the above reasons, the court dismissed the civil lawsuit against North Suffolk and re-directed the case for resolution under the workers’ compensation system.

If you or a loved one are hurt at work, you may be entitled to workers’ compensation benefits. An experienced Massachusetts workers’ compensation attorney can evaluate whether you have a sound claim and fight to make sure that your employer and its insurer follow the rules or give you guidance if there is no insurance available. Contact us by calling 800-367-0871 or using our online contact form.

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