The Supreme Judicial Court last week blocked a plaintiff’s attempt to circumvent the exclusivity provision of the Massachusetts workers’ compensation statute, General Laws c.152 s.24, holding that a corporate employer’s directors were entitled to the benefit of immunity from suit. In Moulton v. Puopolo, the Court ordered the entry of summary judgment against the estate of a woman who was killed by a violent resident while working as a mental health counselor.
As most tort lawyers know, the workers’ compensation statute creates a trade-off for employees. Unless the right to bring a tort suit is preserved at the time of hiring, the employee gives up the right to sue the employer if injured on the job, in exchange for the right to receive worker’s compensation payments without proving that the employer was at fault in causing the injury. With the exception of a brief time when there was a loophole for consortium claims by family members, see, e.g., Ferriter. Daniel O’Connell’s Sons, Inc., 381 Mass. 507 (1980), this provision has consistently been applied to claims–including those for wrongful death–dependent on the employee’s injury.
The plaintiff in Moulton tried a novel way to avoid the workers’ compensation bar by suing the directors of the non-profit corporation that operated the residential treatment facility, claiming that they were negligent in failing to adopt policies that would have prevented the placement of the attacker at the facility, and thereby prevented the decedent’s death. In an opinion, review of several basic principles of corporation law, the SJC held that the corporation can act only through its directors, and that, because they were acting as Moulton’s employer, they shared the corporate employer’s immunity under the statute.
The decision makes sense, both on legal and policy grounds. In order to be responsible for Moulton’s working conditions and the residents she supervised, the directors would have to control her activities–the hallmark of an employer=employee relationship. This allegation of control, while necessary to support the plaintiff’s theory of liability, was at the same time fatal to her claims. And, as the Court noted, the exclusivity provision of G.L. c.152 has always been broadly interpreted, and this interpretation of director immunity is consistent with the purpose of the statute. The fact that the corporation was a non-profit organization only served to make the public policy of protecting those in an employment relationship more compelling–although the Court noted that the same reasoning would likely apply to for-profit enterprises.
The plaintiff’s attorney in Moulton gets credit for creativity and a game effort. Unfortunately, as with most recent efforts to attack the exclusivity provision, it was doomed to fail.
Read the SJC’s opinion in Moulton v. Puopolo here.