Case Bulletin: Significant Case Has Implications For Contractors & Construction Injury Plaintiffs

Case Bulletin:

General Contractor Held Not Immune From Liability for Wrongful Death and Negligence Despite Lump Sum Workers’ Compensation Pay Out to Employees of Uninsured Subcontractor.

The Case handed down on Monday, is Wentworth v. Becker Custom Building Limited, 2011 Mass. LEXIS 350 (May 23, 2011) (attached)

Facts:

In 2005, the defendant (Becker) was the general contractor at a residential construction site in Newburyport. It hired a subcontractor, Great Green Barrier Co. (Great Green), to perform waterproofing work on the residence. An explosion at the site resulted in the death of Timothy B. Wentworth and serious injuries to Timothy's son, Ezekiel, both of whom were Great Green employees.

Great Green did not carry workers' compensation insurance. In 2007, pursuant to G. L. c. 152, § 18, the defendant's insurer agreed to lump-sum settlements of Timothy and Ezekiel's workers’ compensation claims.  In 2006, the plaintiff had filed a complaint alleging that the defendant's "negligence, gross negligence and/or willful, wanton, or reckless conduct" resulted in Timothy's death and Ezekiel's injuries.

Becker filed a Motion for Summary Judgment asking the Superior Court to throw the case out because Becker was immune from the claims in the suit as a result of Becker’s workers’ compensation insurer having paid the lump-sum settlements to the Wentworths citing the immunity provision of G.L. c. 152 § 15.  Becker further argued that holding it liable for common law claims after paying the lump-sum amounts was inequitable in light of the fact that Section 18 of Chapter 152 requires them to cover employees of uninsured subcontractors with whom they do business.

Holding: 

The Supreme Judicial Court disagreed with Becker and held that a general contractor is not immune because the express language of Section 15 requires a direct employment relationship with the employee, undeniably not present in the instant case.

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