Distinguishing Wrongful Death Claims from Exclusive Worker’s Compensation Issues

Many experience the unfortunate circumstance of work related accidents, the most extreme of which may result in death. People often wrongly assume that sustaining an on-the-job injury guarantees a right to sue the employer, in addition to asserting workers’ compensation claims. However, the Louisiana Workers’ Compensation Act provides strict guidelines for remedying a work relating injury, even those that result in death.

A recent East Carroll Parish decision aims to clarify some of those common misconceptions. McNeil Harvey, an employee of MAPP, Inc. died when a piece of heavy farm equipment he was working under fell and crushed him. His daughter, Valerie Harvey, filed suit against both MAPP, Inc. and Joseph Brown, an officer of MAPP, Inc. Harvey alleged that MAPP, Inc.’s negligence in exposing McNeil to “ultra-hazardous” perils and assigning McNeil to work outside the course and scope of his employment was the cause of the accident and McNeil’s subsequent death. Ms. Harvey sought survivor’s damages and wrongful death damages.

The Louisiana Workers’ Compensation Act is the exclusive remedy for all work-related injuries and illnesses. If an employee suffers a personal injury as a result of fulfilling a job’s duties, the act provides the employee with compensation. The act also prevents an employee from filing a lawsuit for damages against his employer or any principal or any officer, director, stockholder, partner, etc. When such issues arise, the defendant employer bears the burden of proving that it is entitled to immunity under the statute. The employer must prove that (1) the victim was an employee within its company at the time of the accident and (2) the other named defendants are officers, directors, stockholders, etc. of the company. The only exception to the exclusive remedy rule is if a death or injury is the result of an intentional tort. Additionally, an employer must prove that the injury or death occurring during the course and scope of the victim’s employment.

The court awarded MAPP, Inc. and Brown summary judgment, finding that McNeil was an employee of MAPP, evidenced by his recent W-2 for wages paid, and he died during the course and scope of his employment with MAAP. MAAP also presented affidavits showing Brown was not only an officer, but also a stockholder of MAAP. Finally, MAPP provided a statement from another employee who worked with McNeil and who confirmed that repairing the heavy equipment was normal during the course of McNeil’s work and happened on a frequent basis.

Harvey’s only alternative would have been to allege that McNeil died as the result of an intentional tort. However, this fact was negated by Harvey’s initial claim that McNeil died as a result of MAPP’s negligence.

The Louisiana Workers’ Compensation Act is very narrowly tailored to address issues that arise solely from death and work related injuries. Keep in mind that while the standard is very specific, an exception applies where there is suspicion of an intentional tort. There are several instances in which wrongful death suits and similar claims are proper. Don’t hesitate to assert such claims.