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Velecela v. All Habitat Servs. – Emotional Distress Claim Barred by Workers’ Comp. Exclusive Remedy

On Behalf of | Sep 4, 2016 | Georgia Workers' Compensation |

Survivors of those who are killed on-the-job may be entitled to workers’ compensation death benefits. Most of the time, these benefits will preclude any further claim against an employer under the workers’ compensation exclusivity provision. That is, workers’ compensation is the only remedy one can have against an employer for a work-related accident or illness.

In the recent case of Velecela v. All Habitat Servs., the plaintiff argued before the Connecticut Supreme Court that she should be allowed to pursue damages against her husband’s former employer for bystander emotional distress after finding her husband deceased under a vehicle one day when she came to bring him lunch at work. Employer argued that because she had already collected workers’ compensation death benefits, her claim was precluded.

Ultimately, the state high court sided with the employer, finding that because her claim for emotional distress was a derivative claim of the worker’s injury, her claim was barred by workers’ compensation exclusivity provisions. 

According to court records, the worker was employed at an ecological management firm. At some point one morning in July 2011, he was working to repair an all-terrain vehicle that was situated on an elevated lift. During the course of the repair, the vehicle suddenly slipped. The worker was crushed and died instantly. Plaintiff came to the scene to bring her husband lunch, unaware of what had occurred. Her husband’s co-workers and supervisors apparently didn’t know what had occurred either. She was the one who discovered her husband’s body underneath the vehicle.

Plaintiff received payment for her husband’s funeral expenses under a worker’s compensation insurance policy that also paid her workers’ compensation survivor benefits. An approved agreement resulted in the plaintiff receiving $300,000 in benefits.

Before that agreement was reached, the plaintiff filed a cause of action against her husband’s former employer for negligent infliction of bystander emotional distress. She asserted she had sustained severe emotional injuries as a result of discovering her husband’s body that afternoon. Defendant employer argued that the plaintiff’s claim was barred under state workers’ compensation law.

The trial court, in reviewing the broad language of the exclusivity provision in the state workers’ compensation law, granted the defense’s motion for summary judgment.

Plaintiff appealed, but the Connecticut Supreme Court affirmed. The primary question here was whether the plaintiff’s claim of emotional distress was a derivative of her husband’s work injury claim or whether it was a separate claim in and of itself. The court, in looking at whether a bystander emotional distress claim arises out of the personal injury and death of an employee sustained in the course of employment, noted that other types of bystander emotional distress claims are derived from bodily injury to another. Emotional distress is not in and of itself an injury, the courts have held, which means it’s only compensable if it flows from the bodily injury of another person. The reason is that but for the bodily injury suffered by the other person, the emotional injuries would not exist.

Therefore, the court ruled that because this claim of emotional damages arose out of an injury that was only compensable under workers’ compensation laws, she couldn’t separately prevail on an emotional distress claim.

Workers’ compensation generally does not provide for emotional distress or suffering, which is why it can be worthwhile to explore third-party litigation following a work accident or fatal work injury.

For information on Atlanta work injury compensation, contact J. Franklin Burns, P.C., at 1-404-920-4708 .