From the Litigation Practice.

Does The Maryland Workers’ Compensation Act Prevent a Non-Dependent’s Claim for a Wrongful Death Suit Arising Out of a Workplace Injury? The Court Answers, Yes!

January, 2024  | By Anthony Benito Blanchfield-Felice

Anthony Benito Blanchfield-Felice wearing a dark blue suit with a blue and red tie.In Maryland, well-established precedent dictates that an employee filing a claim for personal injuries sustained during employment must pursue remedies through the Maryland Workers’ Compensation Act. Nevertheless, the Appellate Court of Maryland (formerly the Maryland Court of Special Appeals) recently examined whether third parties with a cause of action under the Maryland Wrongful Death Act can pursue a remedy through the act or if they are restricted to benefits under the Maryland Workers’ Compensation Act—even when the latter may not offer any relief.

In Ledford v. Jenway Contracting, Inc.,___ Md. App.___, No. 1755, 2023 WL 8269988 (Md. App. Ct. Nov. 30, 2023), the decedent’s daughter argued she could not recover under the Maryland Workers’ Compensation Act but that she should not be denied the total ability to recover for her loss in violation of the Maryland Declaration of Rights. Addressing this issue of first impression, the court resoundingly disagreed and issued this opinion to set the tone for future claims brought by plaintiffs arising from similar circumstances.

Against the backdrop of John Ledford’s death on February 25, 2021, while in the employ of Jenway Contracting, Inc. (“Jenway”), his daughter, Summer Ledford, sued her father’s employer under Maryland’s Wrongful Death Act in. Ledford v. Jenway Contracting, Inc., No. 1755, 2023 WL 8269988, at *2 (Md. App. Ct. Nov. 30, 2023). (As of December 11, 2023, this opinion has not been released for publication in the permanent law reports. A reported opinion is forthcoming and is currently available here.)

Both parties stipulated that Mr. Ledford’s death was accidental, but Ms. Ledford alleged that Jenway’s negligence was a causative factor in her father’s untimely death. Her claims sought compensation for a spectrum of non-economic losses, including mental anguish, emotional pain and suffering, as well as the deprivation of services, society, companionship, comfort, protection, attention, counsel, training, guidance, and education.

Jenway filed a motion to dismiss the complaint, arguing that the exclusive avenue for addressing claims arising from work-related incidents was through Maryland’s Workers’ Compensation Act. See Md. Code Ann., Lab. & Empl. § 9-101 et seq. Jenway’s contention was grounded in the assertion that, given the circumstances of Mr. Ledford’s death during his employment, Ms. Ledford was barred by the Workers’ Compensation Act. Ms. Ledford, however, argued that her non-dependent status exempted her from receiving benefits under the Workers’ Compensation Act, rendering its exclusive applicability to her situation inappropriate. Additionally, Ms. Ledford asserted that denying her any relief violated the Maryland Declaration of Rights because such denial would remove any remedy available for her at law.

The Circuit Court for Baltimore County ruled in favor of Jenway, finding that Ms. Ledford’s claim was barred by the exclusivity of the Workers’ Compensation Act. This outcome prompted Ms. Ledford to file a timely appeal, seeking a reconsideration of the court’s decision.

On November 30, 2023, the Appellate Court of Maryland issued an opinion focusing on a single issue: Was Ms. Ledford’s wrongful death claim barred by Maryland’s Workers’ Compensation Act? The appellate court began its analysis by explaining both Maryland’s Wrongful Death Act and Maryland’s Workers’ Compensation Act, and in doing so identified the pertinent purpose of each statute. See Md. Code Ann., Cts. & Jud. Proc. § 3-901 et seq.; See Md. Code Ann., Lab. & Empl. § 9-101 et seq. The court explained that the legislature in Maryland’s Wrongful Death Act specifically allowed “the decedent’s beneficiaries or relatives to recover damages for loss of support or other benefits that would have been provided, had the decedent not died as a result of another’s negligence.” Ledford, 2023 WL 8269988, at *2.

The Maryland Workers’ Compensation Act generally requires employers “to pay…benefits to an employee who suffers an accidental personal injury in the course of employment, regardless of whether the employer is at fault for the injury” and “[i]n exchange [the Act] provides a substitute for the employer’s common law liability for negligence…and creates an absolute, but limited, liability regardless of fault, such liability upon a conforming employer being exclusive.” Id. The exclusivity provision is found in § 9-509 of the act and provides:

(a) Employers – Except as otherwise provided in this title, the liability of an employer under this title is exclusive.

(b) Covered employees and dependents – Except as otherwise provided in this title, the compensation provided under this title to a covered employee or the dependents of a covered employee is in place of any right of action against any person.

MD. CODE ANN., LAB & EMPL. § 9-509.

The interpretation of this statute went to the crux of the issue in the case. Ms. Ledford asserted that the circuit court made an error in dismissing her wrongful death claim by interpreting § 9-509 of the act to grant absolute immunity to employers, irrespective of whether the injured party would be eligible for benefits. She argued that such an interpretation overlooked the explicit terms of § 9-509(b), which specifically limits the rights of eligible recipients—namely covered employees or the dependents of covered employees. Ms. Ledford contended that, as she did not fall into either category, the act’s exclusivity provision should not bar her from pursuing a wrongful death claim.

In contrast, Jenway contended that the exclusivity provision under § 9-509 of the Workers’ Compensation Act restricts an employer’s liability when a covered employee is injured during employment. Jenway maintained that the only exceptions to this exclusivity provision are when an employer fails to secure compensation or intentionally harms (or kills) a covered employee. According to Jenway, since neither exception applied in the present case and it was undisputed that the decedent’s injury accidentally occurred during employment, any remedy for the injury should be sought exclusively through the Workers’ Compensation Act.

The appellate court expressed that neither it nor the Supreme Court of Maryland (formerly the Maryland Court of Appeals) has considered the exact issue presented here, i.e., whether the Workers’ Compensation Act’s exclusivity provision applies to a non-dependent; however, Maryland Courts have considered whether a wrongful death plaintiff is permitted to bring a wrongful death claim when a covered employee is killed in the course of employment. Both cases cited by the appellate court ruled for the employer in so far as a wrongful death plaintiff’s exclusive remedy for injuries arising from the workplace must come from the Workers’ Compensation Act. See Knoche v. Cox, 282 Md. 447 (1978) (holding that a wrongful death action could be maintained only if the accidental personal injury that resulted in the decedent’s death did not arise out of and in the course of her employment); See Austin v. Thrifty Diversified, Inc., 76 Md. App. 150 (1988) (same). In Ms. Ledford’s case, the appellate court reached the same conclusion.

The court determined that Jenway’s liability for the decedent’s death fell exclusively under the Workers’ Compensation Act, leading to the proper dismissal of Ms. Ledford’s wrongful death action. Ledford, 2023 WL 8269988, at *4. Interpreting the act’s language plainly, the court emphasized that the legislature intended for the act to exclusively govern an employer’s liability and any resulting recovery when a covered employee is injured or killed at work, regardless of a potential entitlement to benefits under the act for a wrongful death plaintiff. Id.

Although Maryland courts have not explicitly applied the act’s exclusivity provision to non-dependents, there is no precedent supporting the relevance of a wrongful death plaintiff’s dependent status in determining the applicability of the provision. The court, aligning with established precedent, held that the act applies exclusively when a covered employee is injured during employment. The absence of circumstances falling within the act’s exceptions—failure to secure compensation or deliberate causation of death by the employer—limited Jenway’s liability to the Workers’ Compensation Act, justifying the proper dismissal of Ms. Ledford’s wrongful death complaint.

Ms. Ledford attempted to persuade the court that extinguishing her right to bring a wrongful death claim without replacing it with a remedy offends Article 19 of the Maryland Declaration of Rights, which provides that “every man, for any injury done to him in his person or property, ought to have remedy by the course of the Law of the Land, and ought to have justice and right[.]” Md. Const., Decl. of Rts. art. 19.

The court was unpersuaded and explained that the extinguishment of Ms. Ledford’s right to bring a wrongful death action did not offend the Maryland Declaration of Rights because the legislature provided certain provisions in the act whereby a non-dependent could recover. Therefore, the legislature did not, as Ms. Ledford suggests, extinguish her right without replacing it with a remedy but provided relief which she was currently not entitled to.

Finally, the court held that the Workers’ Compensation Act was enacted after the Wrongful Death Act, and given the clear intent by the legislature to limit an employer’s liability for workplace accidents, the Workers’ Compensation Act’s must be construed as barring Ms. Ledford’s right to bring a claim pursuant to the Wrongful Death Act.

Notably, the Supreme Court of Maryland has not answered the exact question presented in this case. The tone of this opinion indicates that third-party claims of this nature are likely to face dismissal unless an exception is demonstrated. Therefore, without a showing that an employer (1) failed to secure compensation or (2) deliberately caused an employee’s death, the Maryland Workers’ Compensation Act will bar a claim brought under the Maryland Wrongful Death Act for injuries arising to an employee during the course of employment.

If you have any questions or would like more information regarding the above, Anthony Benito Blanchfield-Felice can be contacted at (410) 576-4795 and ablanchfield-felice@semmes.com.