Supreme Court of Florida Holds Deceased Worker’s Estate Cannot Recover Tort Judgment from Employer’s Insurance Company

DSC03071 morguefile NDPetittIn Morales v. Zenith Ins. Co., a Florida man was tragically killed in a workplace accident. Following the fatal incident, the decedent’s wife agreed to a workers’ compensation settlement with the man’s employer and the employer’s insurance company. The wife also signed a release stating the settlement was the sole remedy for which the insurer would provide coverage to the employer.

Prior to the workers’ compensation settlement, the man’s estate filed a wrongful death action against the man’s employer. As a result, a default judgment of nearly $10 million was entered in favor of the estate. After the employer’s insurer refused to pay the judgment, the estate filed a breach of contract lawsuit against the insurance company in a Florida court. The insurer removed the case to the Middle District of Florida and filed a motion for summary judgment. In its motion, the insurer argued that a workers’ compensation exclusion included in the employer’s policy barred the estate from suing the company. The federal court then granted the insurance company’s motion and entered judgment in its favor.

Next, the estate appealed the decision to the nation’s Eleventh Circuit. Since the Court of Appeals was required to apply Florida law in the case, it certified three questions to the Supreme Court of Florida. First, the court asked the Florida high court to weigh in regarding whether a deceased employee’s estate has standing to bring a breach of contract claim against the insurer of the worker’s employer. Second, the court inquired whether a workers’ compensation policy exclusion that was intended to stop an employee from collecting for a tort committed by his or her employer also barred a deceased worker’s estate from collecting on such a claim. Lastly, the court asked if the release that was signed by the deceased man’s wife would prohibit the estate from recovering the tort judgment if the estate was not barred by the workers’ compensation exclusion.

According to the Florida court, the estate had standing to sue the insurer because it became a judgment creditor when the default judgment was entered by the lower court. Despite this, the court said the estate did not have the right to bring the tort case against the employer in the first place. Instead, the estate’s sole right to recovery was enumerated in Chapter 440 of the Florida Workers’ Compensation Law. The court then ruled that the policy exclusion barred the estate from recovering for the tort judgment.  The Supreme Court of Florida next held that the plain language included in the release that was signed by the decedent’s wife and personal representative was sufficient to preclude the estate from recovering the tort judgment. The court added that the terms of the settlement agreement complied with the Florida Workers’ Compensation Law and were approved by a judge of compensation claims. After answering each question in the affirmative, the Florida Supreme Court returned the case to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

If you or someone close to you was hurt or killed at work, you need a reliable Miami workers’ compensation attorney to advocate on your behalf. To discuss the facts of your case with a committed lawyer, call the hardworking personal injury attorneys at Friedman, Rodman & Frank, P.A. today at (305) 448-8585 or contact us online.

Additional Resources:

Morales v. Zenith Ins. Co., Fla: Supreme Court 2014

More Blog Posts:

Tampa Court Holds Diversity Jurisdiction is Proper in Medical Malpractice Case Where Parties Were Fraudulently Joined, November 26, 2014, South Florida Personal Injury Lawyers Blog

Florida Federal Court Refuses to Dismiss Statutory Bad Faith Claim Arising Out of Broward County Car Accident, November 24, 2014, South Florida Personal Injury Lawyers Blog

Photo Credit: NDPetitt, MorgueFile

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