JENNY VELECELA v. ALL HABITAT SERVICES, LLC, SC 19589
Judicial District of New Haven
Workers' Compensation; Torts; Whether Exclusivity Provision of General Statutes § 31-284 (a) Bars Bystander Emotional Distress Claim Where Plaintiff Received Workers’ Compensation Survivor’s Benefits. The plaintiff's husband was killed during the course of his employment with the defendant when a vehicle that he was repairing slipped from the jacks that were holding it up and crushed him. The plaintiff arrived at the scene to bring her husband lunch and discovered his body. The plaintiff received $300,000 in workers’ compensation survivor's benefits in connection with her husband's death. She brought this action against the defendant claiming that she had suffered severe emotional distress as a result of finding her husband’s body and seeking to recover damages for bystander negligent infliction of emotional distress. The defendant moved for summary judgment, arguing that the plaintiff’s claim was barred by the exclusivity provision of the Workers' Compensation Act, General Statutes § 31-284 (a), which provides that once an employer compensates an employee or his dependents for personal injury or death sustained by the employee during the course of his employment, the employer shall not be liable for an action for damages arising from the injury or death. The defendant argued that the broad language of § 31-284 (a) barred the plaintiff's claim and, alternatively, that the claim was derivative of the underlying injury and that § 31-284 (a) bars derivative claims. The plaintiff argued that § 31-284 (a) did not bar her claim because the benefits that she received were for her husband's death and did not compensate her for her emotional injuries. She also argued that her emotional distress claim was independent and not derivative of the workers’ compensation claim. The court granted summary judgment for the defendant, finding that, while there is no Connecticut appellate authority addressing whether § 31-284 (a) bars bystander emotional distress claims, authority from sister states supports the conclusion that it does. The court also found that the policy behind the workers' compensation scheme would be frustrated if the plaintiff were allowed to bring a claim for damages for her emotional injuries after participating in the compensation claim process and agreeing to accept benefits. It further found that, while the plain language of § 31-284 (a) precluded the plaintiff's claim regardless of whether it was deemed independent or derivative, Connecticut appellate authority establishes that bystander emotional distress claims are derivative and that payment of workers’ compensation benefits bars derivative claims. The plaintiff appeals, claiming that the trial court wrongly determined that the exclusivity provision of § 31-284 (a) bars her bystander emotional distress claim.