Connecticut High Court: Widow’s Bystander Emotional Distress Action Barred by Exclusivity

Earlier today, the Supreme Court of Connecticut released a decision holding that a widow’s bystander emotional distress action filed against her deceased husband’s employer is barred by the exclusive remedy provisions of the Connecticut Workers’ Compensation Act [Conn. Gen. Stat. § 31–284(a); see Velecela v. All Habitat Servs., LLC, 2016 Conn. LEXIS 233 (to be published 8/9/2016)]. The widow discovered her husband’s lifeless body after he had been crushed under an all-terrain vehicle that he had been repairing at work. The high court affirmed a trial court’s decision that granted the employer summary judgment.

Background

The deceased employee sustained injuries at work when an all-terrain vehicle on which he was working slipped of a lift, crushing and killing him. Plaintiff, his widow, who had traveled to the work site to deliver lunch to her husband, discovered his body beneath the vehicle. The employer paid the deceased’s widow for funeral expenses and following the filing of a claim for death benefits, the parties entered into a stipulation, approved by a Workers’ Compensation Commissioner, pursuant to which plaintiff received $300,000 in death benefits.

Before settling the workers’ compensation death benefits claim, plaintiff filed a civil action against the defendant employer for negligent infliction of bystander emotional distress. Specifically, she claimed that she suffered severe emotional injuries as a result of witnessing and discovering her husband’s body. The defendant responded that the widow’s claim was barred by the exclusivity provision of Connecticut’s Workers’ Compensation Act. On the basis of the broad language of the exclusivity provision and the derivative nature of claims for bystander emotional distress, the trial court granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment. The widow appealed.

Supreme Court Agreed Widow’s Claim Was Totally Derivative

The court determined that bystander emotional distress, by its very nature, results from and arises out of the underlying personal injury or death of another. When that personal injury or death was one that was compensable under the act, an action in tort for negligent infliction of bystander emotional distress was barred by the exclusivity provision of § 31–284(a).

The court was not persuaded by the plaintiff’s alternative argument—that negligent infliction of bystander emotional distress is not compensable under the act, and, therefore, cannot be barred by its exclusivity provision. The court observed that the plaintiff’s claim failed in light of the ‘‘sweeping language’’ of the exclusivity provision.

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