In a hot-off-the-press opinion, Maryland’s Court of Special Appeals has held that language within an agreement of final compromise and settlement releasing an employer/insurer from all future claims could not bar a spouse’s claims to death benefits in a workers’ compensation claim.[i]
On June 13, 2012, Bernard Collins (the decedent) filed a workers’ compensation claim against Huntingtown Volunteer Fire Department, and two of its insurers, Chesapeake Employers Insurance Company and Selective Insurance Company of America, seeking an occupational disease claim for heart disease and hypertension.
On May 14, 2015, the parties entered into an agreement of final compromise and settlement, whereupon the decedent was to be paid a lump sum from both insurance companies along with an award for medical expenses and a Medicare set aside annuity. Within the terms of the settlement, the decedent agreed to the following language, (the release):
“The Claimant hereby accepts this Agreement and the aforesaid payment(s) in final compromise and settlement of any and all Claims which the Claimant, his personal representative, dependents, spouse, and children or any other parties who might become beneficiaries under the Workers’ Compensation Law…does hereby, on behalf of himself and all said other parties, release and forever discharge the Employer [Huntington], Chesapeake and Selective…from all other claims of whatsoever kind which might or could hereafter arise…”
On June 4, 2015, the Workers’ Compensation Commission approved the settlement and the claim was dismissed. Unfortunately, the decedent died of a heart attack on June 8, 2017. He was survived by his wife, Peggy Collins, who filed a claim on July 11, 2017 with the commission for death benefits, alleging that her late husband’s death resulted from his occupational disease. On September 7, 2017, the commission ruled that, due to the releasing provision from her husband’s agreement of final compromise and settlement, Collins had no right to survivorship/death benefits and denied the claim.
Collins petitioned the decision for judicial review in the Circuit Court for Calvert County and prayed a jury trial. Huntingtown and Chesapeake opposed the petition and filed a motion for summary judgment on the issue of release. Collins responded by filing a cross motion for summary judgment. Following a motions hearing, the circuit court entered summary judgment in favor of Huntingtown and Chesapeake. Collins proceeded to file a timely appeal to the Court of Special Appeals.
The question before the court was whether the release in the settlement agreement between the decedent, Huntingtown, Chesapeake, and Selective operated as a bar to his wife’s claim for death benefits under the Workers’ Compensation Act. In a methodically examined opinion by the court, that question was resoundingly answered in the negative.
The court analyzed the question with a multi-faceted approach, initially interpreting Maryland codified and statutory law. In its analysis, the court first discussed the language of Maryland Code, Labor and Employment Section 9-683.3, which states that if there are individuals who were dependent on a deceased worker at the time of death, which resulted from an accidental injury or occupational disease, the employer or insurer shall pay death benefits. The court further notes that pursuant to LE Section 9-722(d), settlement agreements are binding upon all parties to the agreement. As the court would later indicate, Collins was not a party to the agreement of final compromise and settlement.
The court next examined Maryland case law and found precedent in Cline v. Mayor and City Counsel of Baltimore. In that case, the court held that it is an employee’s death, itself, that is the compensable event. Further, the court emphasized that a claim for death benefits arises and accrues from a covered worker’s death from the disease, not from the disease itself. Thus, the right of the surviving dependents to death benefits is separate and independent of the injured employee’s rights and is not reliant upon whether the injured worker had been compensated during his lifetime.
In Sea Gull and Di Petro, the court opined that Maryland precedent had established that death benefits sought by a dependent are not a derivative of the injured worker’s claim for benefits, but rather, are distinct claims in and of themselves.
After establishing that Maryland law was well settled as to the distinction of workers’ compensation and death benefits, the court focused its analysis on the context and language of the release itself, compared against the backdrop of Maryland case and statutory law. The court notes that LE Section 9-722, the subtitle governing claim settlements, does not contemplate a covered worker settling and releasing his dependent’s future claim for death benefits within the settlement of his claim for life benefits. The court proceeds to conclude that such construction is consistent with the claimant-friendly settlement oversight requirement, which is meant to prevent advantage being taken of a claimant’s possible ignorance of his rights or best interests.
As previously touched upon, Collins was not a party to the initial claim filed by her now-deceased husband. She did not sign the agreement, including the release, nor was there any indication that she had participated in its negotiation. Consistent with well-established contract law, the court notes that a contract is only binding upon the parties to the contract. Therefore, as Collins had not signed the agreement, nor was she a party to the original claim, the release agreed to by the decedent is not binding upon her.
The court took issue with the language of the release itself, or rather, a lack of specific language. The release is silent as to any mention of death resulting from the decedent’s covered injury or any future claims for death benefits. The court takes issue with this, noting that, given the decedent’s age and medical condition, the possibility that he could die as a result of the occupational disease incurred during his employment would have been within the purview and contemplation of the parties during their negotiation of the agreement. The court stretches in concluding that because the agreement and release did not specify that future death benefit claims were being released by himself on behalf of his dependents, the parties to the agreement did not intend the release to extend to such claims.
While the court’s logic is mostly sound throughout its opinion, the arrival at this particular conclusion appears to have been a bit forced. The absence of such restricting language in the release does not implicitly mean that the parties did not intend for the release to include death benefits. An argument can certainly be made that the “release and discharge…from all other claims of whatsoever kind which might or could hereafter arise under the Law…” explicitly includes death benefits claims. This becomes especially true when recognizing that the employer and insurers agreed to pay to the decedent a combined award of over $200,000.00. Given that sizeable figure, it would stand to reason that Huntington, Chesapeake, and Selective fully intended for the release to constitute a true, full, and final resolution of all claims associated with the decedent’s occupational disease, including future death benefit claims by his dependents.
Despite this questionable conclusion, the court’s holding that the decedent is not barred from pursuing death benefits under the act, as she was not a party to the initial claim and did not participate in negotiating or signing the agreement, has been corroborated by Maryland case, statutory, and codified law. Had the release specifically identified death benefits as being barred from recovery, or further still, had the release been signed by Collins, the outcome of this case may have been different. However, a discourse on a scenario involving those particular facts will be saved for another day.
[i] In the Matter of Collins, 242 Md. App. 188, 213 A.3d 794 (2019).