SJC Considering Important Case Involving Construction Site Accidents.

When someone is injured, one of the first questions that must be answered, among others, is whether or not the injury took place in connection with the victim’s employment. If the injury inarguably took place at work or while on the job, then the expertise of a Massachusetts workers compensation lawyer is needed. If the injury did not take place at work, then the injured victim should seek the advice of an experienced Massachusetts personal injury laywer.

Sometimes, the issue of whether an injury occurred on the job or off, isn’t so clear-cut. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) is now considering a case that could have a significant impact on the liability of contractors and subcontractors for Massachusetts construction site accidents and Massachusetts personal injuries. The case, Wentworth v. Becker, stems from a 2005 explosion at a home construction site in Newburyport, Massachusetts, in which a father and son were critically injured. The father, Timothy Wentworth, 51 at the time, died from burns he suffered in the explosion. His son Ezekiel, then 24, survived but suffered severe, disfiguring burns. The Wentworths were spraying a waterproofing material at a home construction site when a pilot light from a water heater ignited fumes from the spray.

According to records filed in the case, a Newburyport builder by the name of Henry C. Becker hired the Wentworth’s’ North Berwick, Maine, company as a subcontractor on the Newburyport construction job. The Wentworths’ company did not carry workers’ compensation insurance, which pays for medical costs and lost wages when a worker is injured or killed while on the job. Massachusetts law, specifcally M.G.L. Chapter 152, requires most employers to provide workers’ compensation insurance to employees and also requires most employers to make sure that subcontractors are covered in most situations. The Massachusetts Department of Industrial Accidents administers most of these regulations. Cheryl Wentworth, widow of Timothy and mother of Ezekiel, filed a workers’ compensation claim against Becker, asserting that he had permitted an uninsured subcontractor to work on the job. Becker’s company agreed to a settlement in that claim, according to court records. Cheryl Wentworth later hired a Massachusetts personal injury lawyer (note: not this firm,) to sue Becker on top of the previous workers compensation claim, alleging negligence in the death of her husband and the injuries that her son suffered, and that’s where things got really thorny. Becker fought the suit in court, arguing that Massachusetts law doesn’t allow subcontractors such as the Wentworths, to collect workers’ compensation insurance and maintain a Massachusetts personal injury suit for damages. Becker argued that under the “exclusivity provision” of the Massachusetts Workers Compensation statute – an injured worker must choose one forum (a personal injury suit) or the other (a workers’ compensation claim, which is a much more streamlined, administrative process.) Becker argues that the Wentworths could not choose both, and that they had already chosen a workers compensation claim. Two years ago, an Essex County Superior Court judge, Thomas R. Murtagh, found in favor of Becker.

But the Wentworths’ lawyers pressed on, arguing that a precedent that judge Murtagh relied on in his decision on was inapplicable. An Appeals Court panel sided with the Wentworths, ruling that Timothy and Ezekiel Wentworth should not be considered to have been employees of Becker, and that therefore they aren’t barred by the exclusivity provision of the state’s Workers Compensation law.

The SJC is now considering the matter. The Massachusetts Academy of Trial Attorneys, a nonprofit association of lawyers, has filed an amicus brief in support of the Wentworths, saying they should be allowed to sue Becker. MATA has criticized Becker’s firm, arguing that “by having been negligent in causing the injury and culpable in failing to confirm the subcontractor’s insurance coverage, (it) will never pay for its share of the harm caused by its negligence.” MATA’s brief also accused Becker of participating in what has been called called the state’s “underground economy” of exploited workers. As a Massachusetts construction site accident lawyer, I think there’s an argument to be made there, and that it would be unjust to bar suits like this for compensation for these types of constinjuries. I’ll keep you posted on this case.