Massachusetts Court Allows Workers’ Suit Against Contractor

By Kenneth J. St. Onge | May 23, 2011

A worker who was injured and the estate of another who died at a Massachusetts construction site can sue the contractor who oversaw the job — despite the fact the contractor’s insurer has already paid them workers’ comp benefits, the state’s highest court has ruled.

The decision in Wentworth v. Becker — which stems from a 2005 explosion at a residential construction site on Plum Island — could impact the ways liability is shared between contractors and their subcontractors.

Timothy Wentworth and his son, Ezekiel, were spraying waterproofing at a home construction site, when a pilot light inside the building ignited fumes and exploded. Timothy Wentworth died of injuries suffered in the explosion and his son was left severely disfigured.

The Wentworths were employed by Maine-based Great Green Barrier Co., a subcontractor on the job. Despite state laws requiring it, the company did not carry workers’ compensation insurance.

Henry C. Becker Custom Building, the contractor overseeing the job, did carry workers’ compensation insurance and under state law was obligated to pay benefits to the Wentworths, through its insurer. In 2007, Timothy Wentworth’s widow, Cheryl, and Ezekiel, agreed to lump-sum settlements and were paid for their worker’s comp claims.

However, Cheryl Wentworth also filed a lawsuit against the Becker, alleging the contractor’s negligence caused the Wentworths’ death and injuries.

A Superior Court Judge ruled in Becker’s favor, siding with the contractor’s arguments that the acceptance of lump-sup, workers’ compensation payments barred the Wentworths from also suing for a civil claim.

But the Wentworths appealed, arguing that because they were not employees of the insured contractor, they were not barred from filing a civil claim under state law.

Now the state’s highest court has reversed the opinion of the lower court, and sided with the Wentworths — agreeing that their claim against the contractor can proceed.

“We conclude… that suits are not barred against general contractors that were obligated… to pay workers’ compensation benefits of the uninsured subcontractor’s employees… In sum, the immunity does not apply to the defendant (Becker),” wrote Chief Justice Roderick L. Ireland in the court’s decision.

The case now heads back to civil court.

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