As the country continues to reel from the coronavirus pandemic, new legal issues also arise. There has been talk in the media of people bringing wrongful death lawsuits against companies, alleging that the companies are responsible for the deaths of their loved ones who contracted COVID-19 while at work.
Employers and employees alike are wondering: Is that a viable legal option in Maryland? Is it possible to win a wrongful death lawsuit over a family member catching COVID-19 at work?
In Maryland, it Comes Down to Wrongful Death vs. Workers’ Compensation
The answer would appear to be: almost certainly not. Maryland law is quite clear that if someone gets ill and passes away while on the job, the person’s beneficiaries are limited to seeking benefits via the workers’ compensation system, as opposed to being able to bring a civil suit – such as a wrongful death action – for monetary damages.
The Maryland Code of Labor and Employment Section 9-509 is entitled “Exclusivity of Compensation.” Subsection (b) of that statute states: “Except as otherwise provided in this title, the compensation provided under [the Workers’ Compensation title] to a covered employee or the dependents of a covered employee is in place of any right of action against any person.”
In other words, if your loved one passes away as a result of a work-related illness, you are limited to seeking recovery by way of workers’ compensation benefits. Death benefits in a workers’ compensation situation can be quite substantial, but may be more limited than what someone could seek by way of a civil lawsuit.
There are Exceptions, But Only for Specific Situations
The statute does provide for two exceptions. The first exception would be if the employer has not secured workers’ compensation insurance. In that case, subsection (b) of the statute does allow the employee or beneficiaries to elect either a civil suit for damages or workers’ compensation benefits.
The second exception has to do with deliberate acts of the employer. Section (d) states:
“Exception – Deliberate act. – If a covered employee is injured or killed as the result of the deliberate intent of the employer to injure or kill the covered employee, the covered employee or, in the case of death, a surviving spouse, child, or dependent of the covered employee may:
(1) bring a claim for compensation under this title, or (2) bring an action for damages against the employer.”
As you can see, the exception provides an option for bringing a civil lawsuit if the employer committed a “deliberate act.” This is a very high bar to overcome, however. Maryland’s highest court held that an employer has committed a deliberate act only when the employer “decided to injure [the employee], that the employer committed some act to accomplish this goal, and that as a direct result of the employer’s action [the employee] was injured.”
This was the decision in Johnson v. Mountaire Farms of Delmarva, Inc. in 1986. The case makes it clear that even if the employer is reckless or willfully negligent by placing its employees in a dangerous position, such action is not sufficient to allow the employee to bring a civil suit for damages. The employee has to show that the employer intended or desired for the employee to get sick or injured.
An Attorney Can Answer Specific Questions About COVID-19 and Wrongful Death
Turning to the current pandemic, many people in Maryland may feel that their employers acted wrongly by forcing them to come into work during the pandemic, or by not providing sufficient personal protective equipment (PPE). Those people may be justified in their feelings, and obviously if someone got sick at work from COVID-19 and passed away, that is a tragedy for which the family should be entitled to some benefits.
However, the law in Maryland makes clear that the family will likely be limited to seeking those benefits by way of the workers’ compensation system, as opposed to by way of a civil lawsuit. Unless there is some evidence that the employer knowingly desired for the employee to contract the disease and therefore placed him or her in harm’s way, it will be almost impossible to prove employer liability.
Of course, this article deals only with the situation where an employee contracted COVID-19 while at work and passed away. There may be other situations in which someone contracted COVID-19 and passed away, and in these cases, a different legal analysis would apply.
We understand that COVID-19 has brought up many new legal challenges and situations. Our attorneys are happy to answer your questions regarding work-related COVID 19, or any other question relating to workers’ compensation in Maryland. Please call us at 410-753-4611 to set up a free consultation.
Have a Legal Question About COVID-19, Employment, and Wrongful Death? We Have Answers
When you need to learn more about your rights, the attorneys at Zirkin and Schmerling Law can help. Contact us or call us at 410-753-4611 to set up an appointment with one of our experienced wrongful death lawyers today.