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Florida Workers’ Compensation Exclusive Remedy Bars Wrongful Death Settlement

A Florida Supreme Court recently ruled that the exclusive remedy provisions of the state’s workers’ compensation laws prevent the estate of an employee killed on the job from receiving a multi-million dollar judgment against the employer and its insurer in a separate wrongful death case. The estate of Santana Morales, Jr. was denied a $9.5 million wrongful death judgment after he was crushed to death by a palm tree.

Facts of the Case

Mr. Morales was killed in 1997 while working for Lawns Nursery & Irrigation Designs, Inc. when a palm tree being unloaded from a trailer crushed him to death. Court records show that his wife, Leticia Morales, received a workers’ compensation settlement from Lawns Nursery as well as from its insurer, Zenith Insurance Co. The workers’ compensation settlement contained an agreement that stated that the workers’ compensation was the exclusive remedy for Ms. Morales in her husband’s case.

Ms. Morales filed a wrongful death lawsuit against her husband’s employer and the insurance company in a Florida court that was ongoing when the workers’ compensation settlement had been reached. The jury in the wrongful death lawsuit awarded Ms. Morales $9.525 million against Lawns Nursery. The insurance company refused to pay the judgment, and Ms. Morales sued Zenith for breach of contract under its employer liability policy.

Court Ruling

Zenith Insurance appealed to the U.S. District Court in Orlando, which ruled that the exclusive remedy rules prevented Ms. Morales from collecting the judgment of her wrongful death lawsuit. Ms. Morales then appealed to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals which said that it was uncertain whether Florida law allows employer liability policies to exclude coverage for claims that could be covered under a workers’ compensation policy. The Circuit Court asked the Florida Supreme Court to consider the issue before it rendered a ruling in the federal appeals court.

The Florida Supreme Court released its opinion earlier this month, ruling that the insurance company’s workers’ compensation employer liability policy would exclude Mr. Morales’ estate from collecting on its tort judgment from Zenith. In addition, the workers’ compensation settlement was the exclusive remedy for his death.

The court stated that “it is clear that the workers’ compensation exclusion bars coverage of claims arising from bodily injuries for which Lawns is required to pay benefits under workers’ compensation law . . . In other words, as we have previously explained, employer liability insurance is a ‘gapfiller’ (that) provid(es) protection to the employer in those situations where the employee has a right to bring a tort action despite the provisions of the workers’ compensation statute.”

The court also stated that the release that Ms. Morales signed would be enough alone to preclude the estate from collecting on the wrongful death judgment. The case now returns to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals for further consideration.

Call a Florida Workers’ Compensation Lawyer Today

If you or someone that you know has been hurt on the job or has questions regarding their workers’ compensation coverage in Orlando, Jacksonville, Tampa, Fort Myers, or West Palm Beach, let the experienced lawyers at The Pendas Law Firm help. Call or contact the office today for a free and confidential consultation of your case.

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