Vermont Supreme Court: Workers’ Comp Benefit Doesn’t Bar Damage Suit

March 10, 2008

The Vermont Supreme Court has reinstated the negligence claim of a man whose hand was crushed when an acetylene tank fell on it, saying his acceptance of workers’ compensation benefits from his employer didn’t by itself bar him from filing suit for damages.

In a unanimous decision, the court reversed an Addison County judge’s ruling that said Carl Smith couldn’t sue for damages because he accepted the benefits. The high court said Smith could sue because employer Desautels House Movers Inc. didn’t have workers’ compensation insurance but didn’t require him to waive his right to sue before paying him benefits.

Smith, 53, of Brandon, suffered the injury to his right hand in May 2002 while working for Desautels.

Afterward, he filed a claim under Vermont’s workers’ compensation statutes. But the company didn’t have workers’ compensation insurance at the time, and decided to pay him temporary total disability benefits out of its own pocket.

In 2005, when Desautels cut off the payments, Smith sued in Addison County Superior Court. A year later, Judge Matthew Katz granted the company’s motion for summary judgment, ruling that Smith made a binding decision to accept the payments and as a result was barred from suing separately.

In Friday’s ruling, the Supreme Court reversed that ruling, saying Smith retained his right to sue because he never completed a signed, written agreement waiving his right to do so.

“… there is no indication that plaintiff made a knowing and intelligent waiver of the right to bring suit rather than accepting compensation or that he was even aware of that alternative,” the court said in a 14-page opinion by Associate Justice John Dooley III.

The ruling clears the way for Smith’s lawsuit to proceed. He no longer works for Desautels.

His hand can’t function normally, according to his attorney, Eugene Rakow, of Rutland.

“I won’t say it’s useless, but it’s pretty limited in what it can do,” said Rakow.

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