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How the Law Treats a Death on the Job Differently

A recent Florida Supreme Court ruling confirmed what we already knew. Florida’s exclusive remedy provision, which states that workers’ compensation is the sole remedy for injuries (even fatal ones) sustained in the workplace, is here to stay.

The case in question was Morales v. Zenith Ins. Co. It involved the 1997 death of Lawns Nursery & Irrigation Designs employee Santana Morales Jr, who was crushed to death by a palm tree while he was unloading a trailer at work. His wife, Leticia, received $100,000 in workers’ comp benefits from the nursery’s insurance company, Zenith. Leticia Morales had also filed a wrongful death civil suit against the nursery, which was still pending at the time Zenith reached a workers’ comp settlement for Morales’ estate. Eventually, Morales won the civil case, and the estate stood to collect a $9.5 million settlement.

Zenith refused to pay.

Citing Florida’s exclusive remedy provision, Zenith filed an appeal, arguing that Morales should not be be compensated twice for the same claim. The case went to the Florida Supreme Court, which ultimately decided in favor of Zenith Insurance. Although Morales won the civil negligence suit against Zenith, her wrongful death payout was overturned. According to the Court, Morales had already been sufficiently compensated for her husband’s fatal accident from the initial workers’ comp settlement. In fact, Morales’ estate should not have been allowed to file a civil negligence suit against Zenith in the first place.

On the surface, the case might seem unfair. After all, isn’t a man’s life worth more than $100,000? But as the Supreme Court confirmed, Zenith was legally in the right: the business had legal immunity. If you’re thinking that Ms. Morales should have forgone a workers’ compensation case altogether in favor of a wrongful death civil suit, you’d be wrong, too. The same law that outlines exclusive remedy also bars employers from directly suing their employers.

At its core, workers’ compensation is a compromise. The same no-fault agreement behind Florida’s exclusive remedy provision is also what facilitates swift resolutions in workers’ comp cases. That means speedy payouts, especially compared to the time it could take to settle in civil court. But they might not always be fair—or appropriate.

The takeaway? As this appeal reaffirms, workers’ compensation is the only legal avenue for injuries in the workplace. However, it’s important to note that exceptions do exist for third party involvement and cases where intentional harm is suspected. If your loved one has suffered a fatal accident at work, you might still be able to file a wrongful death claim and receive significantly more compensation for your loss.

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