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Florida workers comp exclusive remedy rule bars wrongful death payout to family

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Exclusive remedy provisions under Florida's workers compensation statute prevent the estate of a worker killed on the job from receiving a $9.5 million liability judgment against the man's employer and its insurer, the Florida Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

Santana Morales Jr. was crushed to death by a palm tree being unloaded from a trailer in 1997 while working for Seffner, Florida-based Lawns Nursery & Irrigation Designs Inc. Court records show that his wife, Leticia Morales, received a workers comp settlement for her husband's death from Lawns Nursery and the company's comp insurer, Zenith Insurance Co.

The settlement agreement included a release that said workers comp was the exclusive remedy for Ms. Morales in her husband's case, records show. Ms. Morales also had filed a separate wrongful death lawsuit in a Florida court that was ongoing when the settlement agreement had been reached.

A jury in the wrongful death lawsuit found in Ms. Morales' favor and awarded a $9.525 million judgment against Lawns Nursery. Zenith, which also issued an employer liability policy to Lawns Nursery, refused to pay the tort judgment, court filings show, and Mr. Morales' estate sued Zenith for breach of contract under an employer liability policy that Lawns Nursery held with Zenith.

Zenith appealed to the U.S. District Court in Orlando, Florida, which ruled that Florida workers comp exclusive remedy rules prevented Ms. Morales' wrongful death suit from moving forward, records show.

On appeal, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta said last year that it was unclear whether Florida law allows employer liability policies to exclude coverage for claims that could be covered under a workers comp policy. The circuit court asked the Florida Supreme Court to consider that issue before it ruled on the federal appeals case.

The Florida Supreme Court ruled Thursday that Zenith's workers comp exclusion in its employer liability policy would preclude Mr. Morales' estate from receiving a tort judgment from Zenith, and that workers comp is the exclusive remedy for Mr. Morales' death.

It “is clear that the workers' compensation exclusion bars coverage of claims arising from bodily injuries for which Lawns is required to pay benefits under workers' compensation law — i.e., claims that are covered by the workers' compensation insurance portion of the policy,” the ruling reads. “In other words, as we have previously explained, employer liability insurance is a “gapfiller (that) provid(es) protection to the employer in those situations where the employee has a right to bring a tort action despite the provisions of the workers' compensation statute.”

The Florida high court also found that the release that Ms. Morales signed in the workers comp settlement would have precluded Mr. Morales' estate from collecting the tort judgment against Zenith.

The case will return to the 11th Circuit for further consideration.