It is common knowledge in the workers' compensation community that the Workers' Compensation Act provides the exclusive remedy to employees pursuing damages due to a workplace injury, and any claims for those damages must be filed with the Workers' Compensation Board. However, in the recent case of Amerisafe Risk Services et al. v. The Estate of Hazel D. Wadsak et al., (Nov. 9, 2012) the trial court was faced with two specific questions concerning the exclusive remedy doctrine: (1) Does the doctrine apply when the employee dies and the claim is made by his estate? And (2) Does the doctrine apply when the allegation of wrongdoing is against the workers' compensation insurance company? In both cases, the ultimate answer is "yes."
Mr. Wadsack was a 19 year old employee of Mills Tree Service in 2008 when he suffered an injury by electrocution when a tree limb touched a power line. While he was in an induced coma recovering from his injuries, his parents were appointed as temporary guardians. The reported decision does not indicate the course of Mr. Wadsack's treatment. However, Mr. Wadsack's parents claim that the insurance company's handling of the workers' compensation claim deprived their son of necessary medical care resulting in "extreme emotional distress" to his mother and resulting in her death. They sued the worker's compensation carrier directly in civil court, and the carrier requested dismissal of the claim under the exclusive remedy doctrine.
The trial court, after a hearing on the motion to dismiss, denied the motion without explanation. However, the carrier was allowed to appeal the motion's denial. The Court of Appeals has held that the trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction over the claim and directed the Wadsacks to take their complaint to the Board. It ruled that the exclusive remedy doctrine continues to apply when the complaint is made by the "personal representatives or next of kin" of employee. Furthermore, any bad faith claim against the provider is only subject to review by the Workers' Compensation Board under Ind. Code § 22-3-4-12.1(a).
While this decision may not appear to be noteworthy to those who handle worker's compensation claims routinely, it nevertheless reminds us that not all attorneys, and not all trial courts, understand the impact of the exclusive remedy doctrine. All claims that stem from a workplace injury must be adjudicated before the Workers' Compensation Board. The risk of being uninformed of this restriction can be significant.