Regulatory Developments

Showdown in Massachusetts: Workers’ Compensation vs. Municipal Employment Statutes

When a worker is injured on the job, the injury is generally compensable under workers’ compensation. But what two different employment laws are in conflict with each other? A recent case in Massachusetts pitted statutes governing the termination of municipal employees against state workers’ compensation law. In May 2017, the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled on the question of which law took precedence.

Courthouse exterior

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Here’s how things turned out.

A Disabling Injury, and an Unrelated Indictment

On September 5, 2011, paramedic Brian Benoit was moving a patient into his ambulance when he suffered a badly broken ankle. Benoit, who had worked for the city of Boston’s emergency medical services for 20 years, was disabled by the injury and received workers’ compensation payments for almost a year.

About 1 year later, the city learned that Benoit would soon be indicted “on charges relating to misuse of controlled substances” that were intended for patients. The alleged crime was not directly related to Benoit’s injury. Following Benoit’s indictment on 73 counts of criminal misconduct involving controlled substances carried on the ambulance, the city of Boston suspended him and discontinued his workers’ compensation payments. The Massachusetts Department of Industrial Accidents (DIA) ordered the payments reinstated. The city of Boston appealed, insisting that as a result of Benoit’s suspension, it was required by statute to suspend any compensation or salary payments as well.

The two cases wound their way through various appeals. On August 5, 2015, Benoit plead guilty to one felony and seventeen misdemeanors on the drug charges, and resigned from the ambulance service. He appealed the discontinuation of his workers’ compensation benefits afresh, arguing that because he was no longer suspended, the suspension statute no longer applied.

Two Conflicting Laws

Ultimately, the Massachusetts Supreme Court took up the issue of the conflicting laws, asking whether the suspension statute prohibited suspended employees from receiving workers’ compensation. Benoit argued that workers’ compensation did not meet the definition of “compensation” found in the suspension statute. That statute states that suspended employees “shall not receive any compensation or salary during the period of suspension.” The term “compensation” is defined in that context as “any money, thing of value or economic benefit conferred on or received by any person in return for services rendered or to be rendered by himself or another.”

So, are workers’ compensation payments “compensation” as defined in the suspension statute? The court said “No.” Workers’ compensation benefits are different, the Court ruled, because “compensation” under the suspension statute was in exchange for “services rendered during employment.” Workers’ compensation, in contrast, is not connected to the services rendered to an employer by an employee; it is a separate legal arrangement. Workers’ compensation is a guaranteed benefit paid to workers in exchange for waiving their right to sue the employer in tort for injuries during the course of their employment. As such, the suspension laws cannot supersede—or even directly conflict with—the suspension statutes.

As a result of the decision, the case was sent back to the lower court for reconsideration; the insurer may have to continue paying workers’ compensation despite Benoit’s criminal behavior.

Tomorrow we’ll look at an Alabama Circuit Court ruling that could throw the state’s whole workers’ compensation system into disarray.