Alabama Workers' Comp Blawg

  • 27
  • Mar
  • 2014

The Alabama Exclusivity Provision Applied to a Breach of Contract Claim Against Employer

Sheila W. Austin, as admin. of the estate of Rose W. McMillan v.

Providence Hosp. and Sedgwick Claim Management. Services, Inc.

 

Released March 21, 2014

The deceased employee’s representative appealed Summary Judgment entered by the Mobile Circuit Court in favor of the employer and its claims administrator. The underlying case was based on a breach of contract claim filed by the estate against the employer and administrator. The alleged breach of contract was based on an agreement to settle future medical benefits.

On October 27, 2011, the parties agreed to settle McMillan’s future medical benefits for $75,000.00. However, McMillan was a eligible for Medicare so the parties submitted the Medicare Set-Aside proposal to CMS for approval. On November 29, 2012 CMS determined that of the $75,000.00, $35,951.00 had to be reserved for future medical care and drug expenses. The parties had agreed that the settlement was to be court approved. However, on December 9, 2012, McMillan passed away before the court could approve the settlement. Providence and Sedgwick indicated that the settlement would not be honored because it had not been approved by the court. As a result, Austin filed the breach of contract claim.

The Trial Court entered summary judgment in favor of the employer and administrator based on the exclusivity provision of the Alabama Workers’ Compensation Act. The Trial Court also concluded that the agreement was not valid because it had not been approved and could not be made valid due to the employee’s death. The Trial Court specifically said that because future medical benefits are payable without time limitation any lump sum payment would reduce the benefits available and require court approval.

Austin argued on appeal the agreement to settle was a binding contract and survived the death of McMillan pursuant to §§ 6-5-462 and 6-5-465, Ala. Code 1975. Austin argued that the agreement became unconditional after CMS approved the medicare set-aside proposal and it was not required to be court approved because the settlement exceeded the monetary value of the future medical benefits as determined by CMS. As a result, Austin argued that § 25-5-56, Ala Code 1975, did not require approval of the settlement by the court.

The Court of Civil Appeals did not address Austin’s argument because Austin failed to address the Trial Court’s primary ground for entering summary judgment, the exclusivity provision. The Court of Civil Appeals stated that Austin failed to argue or explain how the subject claim would fall outside of the exclusivity provision. The Court of Civil Appeals stated that because the Trial Court had an alternate basis for granting summary judgment, if the appellant fails to show error as to each basis, the appellant waives any argument on those grounds and this results in an automatic affirmance of the judgment.

My Two Cents:

While the Court of Civil Appeals did not actually rule on Austin’s argument, I find it interesting that they chose to write an opinion pointing out the exclusivity provision and breach of contract. This is the first time I have seen the exclusivity provision and breach of contract mentioned at the same time. The exclusivity provision prevents recovery by any other method, unless provided for under the Act, for injury caused by an on-the-job injury. § 25-5-52, Ala. Code 1975. The question created by this case is, does a breach of contract claim qualify as a claim based on the workers’ compensation injury? The argument could definitely be made that once a valid contract to settle is entered into, that an attempt to recover under the theory of contract is no longer based on the injury itself. This would then fall outside of the exclusivity provision.

In this case it does not appear there was a valid contract to enforce because the parties had agreed to have it approved by the court making the contract contingent upon court approval. Had that not been the case, the fact that the payment was in excess of what CMS determined necessary to cover future medical benefits may have resulted the agreement not being continent upon court approval. § 25-5-56 only requires court approval when settlement is for an amount less that the amount stipulated by the Alabama Workers’ Compensation Act. Therefore, if there had not been a contingency the estate might have succeeded in arguing the exclusivity provision does not apply to a breach of contract claim because the recovery is based on the contract and not the workers’ compensation injury.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

The article was written by Joshua G. Holden, Esq. a Member of Fish Nelson, LLC, a law firm dedicated to representing employers, self-insured employers and insurance carriers in workers’ compensation and related liability matters. Mr. Holden is AV rated by Martindale-Hubbell, which is the highest rating an attorney can receive. He is the immediate past chair of the ABA/ TIPS Workers’ Compensation and Employers’ Liability Committee.

Holden and his firm are members of The National Workers’ Compensation Defense Network (NWCDN). The NWCDN is a national and Canadian network of reputable law firms organized to provide employers and insurers access to the highest quality representation in workers’ compensation and related employer liability fields.

If you have questions about this article or Alabama workers’ compensation issues in general, please feel free to contact the author at jholden@fishnelson.com or 205-332-1428.

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