Annapolis, MD (WorkersCompensation.com) – A settlement agreement signed by a firefighter doesn’t prevent his widow from seeking death benefits, a Maryland Appeals Court has found.
The court, in the case In the Matter of Collins, a settlement agreement in a disability case signed by a husband, should not prevent a wife from seeking death benefits through workers’ compensation.
The case centers around Bernard Collins who worked for the Huntingtown Volunteer Fire Department. In 2012, Collins filed a disability benefits claim for heart disease and hypertension. Both are presumed to be compensable in Maryland for firefighters. Chesapeake Employers Insurance Co. and Selective Insurance Co. of America, settled with Collins in 2015 after initially denying the claim.
As part of the settlement, Collins agreed that he and his dependents released the companies from any and all future workers’ compensation claims. His wife was not a party to the settlement.
“Two years before he died, Mr. Collins settled claims he had brought under the Act against Petitioners for disability benefits related to his heart disease. In the parties’ settlement agreement, Mr. Collins purported to release Petitioners from any and all claims that Mr. Collins, his personal representative, dependents, spouse, children, and other potential beneficiaries might then or could later have ‘of whatsoever kind’ which might arise under the Act from Mr. Collins’s disability. In exchange for Mr. Collins’s release, Petitioners agreed to make various payments to Mr. Collins upon approval of the settlement agreement by the State Workers’ Compensation Commission (the “Commission”),” court documents said.
In 2017, Peggy Collins filed a dependent’s claim for death benefits when her husband Bernard died from a cardiac arrest. Initially, the Maryland Workers’ Compensation Commission denied her claim, saying it had approved Bernard Collins original settlement agreement. Peggy Collins appealed to the Calvert Circuit Court, which also upheld the denial.
Peggy Collins appealed to the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, which said Mrs. Collins was not a party to the settlement, and therefore it doesn’t “extinguish the independent claim for death benefits that a surviving dependent may bring if the employee dies of the same compensable injury or disease.” The Appeals court reversed the decision and handed the case back down to the commission.
Although the insurers appealed the decision, the appeals court upheld the Court of Special Appeals’ findings. While they argued that Mr. Collins “unambiguously” released them from future claims,” the appellate court decided that the agreement was unenforceable against anyone who was not a party to it.
Additionally, the court found that the Workers’ Compensation Act does allow dependents to release their current or future death benefit claims, but that the Act doesn’t give employees the power to release companies of any claims made by their dependents.
“Therefore, Petitioners are incorrect when they assert that Mr. Collins’s attempt to release Mrs. Collins’s potential claim for death benefits was ‘a lawful exercise of his right to waive the claims of his heirs.’… Mrs. Collins did not inherit her claim for death benefits as Mr. Collins’s heir. To the contrary, as discussed in detail below, Mrs. Collins’s claim for death benefits is created by the Act and is independent of Mr. Collins’s prior claim for disability benefits. Because Mr. Collins never could assert a claim for death benefits himself, it was not his prerogative to release such a claim. Only Mrs. Collins could release her claim to death benefits by personally entering into a settlement agreement with Petitioners that was subsequently approved by the Commission. She did not do so,” the court wrote.