Connecticut High Court Denies Wife’s Emotional Distress Workers’ Comp Claim

By Dave Collins | August 10, 2016

A Connecticut woman who found her 77-year-old husband crushed to death under an all-terrain vehicle when she brought him lunch at his job cannot sue his employer for severe emotional injuries she suffered, the state Supreme Court ruled recently.

Justices issued a unanimous decision in an appeal filed by Jenny Velecela. Her husband, Austin Irwin, was under the large ATV doing repairs at All Habitat Services in Branford on July 16, 2011, when it slipped off a lift and killed him. Velecela found him a short time later.

In an agreement with All Habitat Services, Velecela received $300,000 in workers’ compensation benefits for her husband’s death, but she also filed a lawsuit against the company alleging it was responsible for the emotional injuries she suffered when she found her husband’s body.

The Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling that Connecticut’s workers’ compensation law bars people from suing for negligent infliction of emotional distress if they receive workers’ compensation benefits.

The decision was similar to one the high court issued last week. In that case, justices said two workers injured in a power plant explosion that killed six other people in Middletown in 2010 could not sue a contractor for negligence because they had received workers’ compensation benefits.

Velecela’s lawyer, Kevin Dehghani, argued that the state Workers’ Compensation Act does not cover bystander emotional distress, so Velecela should be allowed to sue the company. Barring such claims would “leave a whole class of injuries uncompensated in Connecticut,” Dehghani wrote.

Dehghani said that he was disappointed with the court’s decision and the precedent it sets.

Velecela could not be reached. A phone listing for her could not be found.

An official with All Habitat Services did not immediately return a message Monday.

The company’s lawyer, Michael Deakin, said he and company officials express sympathy to Irwin’s family. Deakin said the issue in the court case was straight forward. He said that under Connecticut and most other workers’ compensation laws, people who receive workers’ compensation benefits give up rights to pursue other claims against employers.

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