Case Update: Settlement Agreements and Death Benefits


In February 2012, Bernard Collins filed a claim with the Workers' Compensation Commission alleging he developed heart disease and hypertension caused by his employment as a volunteer firefighter for the Huntingtown Volunteer Fire Department with a date of disablement of May 6, 2011. At the time of Collins' alleged disablement, Huntingtown was insured by Chesapeake Employers' Insurance Company. Huntingtown and Chesapeake contested Collins' claim. Chesapeake argued that Collins became disabled in 1998 when he underwent aortic dissection surgery, and impleaded Selective, which insured Huntingtown in 1998.

After a hearing before the Commission in 2014, the Commission found that Collins' occupational disease of heart disease and hypertension arose out of an in the course of his employment as a firefighter; that his last injurious exposure was with Huntingtown; that that he was temporarily totally disabled as of May 6, 2011, for one day, and from July 7, 2011 through July 24, 2011, and that his average weekly wage was $152.50.

Huntingtown and Chesapeake appealed the Commission's decision regarding compensability and last injurious exposure in the Circuit Court. Collins filed a cross-petition that disputed the calculation of his average weekly wage.

While the appeal was pending, the parties agreed to settle the claim and filed a stipulation of dismissal in the Circuit Court which dismissed the case and remanded the matter to the Commission. The parties entered into a Settlement Agreement on May 14, 2015. It was signed by Collins, his attorney, Huntingtown, Chesapeake and Selective, and then filed with the Commission on May 19, 2015. The Settlement Agreement contained the following Release:

The Claimant hereby accepts this Agreement and the aforesaid payment(s) in final compromise and settlement of any and all Claims which the Claimant, his personal representative, dependents, spouse and children or any other parties who might become beneficiaries under the Workers' Compensation Law, might now or could hereafter have under the provision of the said Law, arising out of the aforesaid injury or disablement or the disability resulting therefrom, and does hereby, on behalf of himself and all of said other parties, release and forever discharge the Employer [Huntingtown], Chesapeake and Selective, their personal representative, heirs, successors and assigns, from all other claims of whatsoever kind which might or could hereafter arise under the Law from the said injury, disablement or disability.

The Commission approved the Settlement Agreement pursuant to LE § 9-722 on June 4, 2015.

On June 8, 2017, Collins died of a heart attack brought on by heart disease and hypertension, and on July 11, 2017, Collins' wife filed a claim for death benefits with the Commission pursuant to LE §§ 9-683.1-.5, seeking dependency benefits and reimbursement for her husband's funeral expenses.

A hearing was held before the Commission to determine whether the Settlement Agreement that Collins entered into two years before his death barred his wife from receiving death benefits, among other issues. The Commission issued an Order finding that the Release in Collins' Settlement Agreement barred his wife from receiving survivorship/death benefits under the Workers' Compensation Act.

Mrs. Collins petitioned for judicial review in the Circuit Court. Before trial, Huntingtown and Chesapeake moved for summary judgment on the issue of the Release, and Mrs. Collins filed a cross-motion for summary judgment on that same issue. After a hearing on the motions, the Circuit Court issued an order determining that the Release barred Mrs. Collins's claim and granted judgment in favor of Huntingtown and its insurers.

The matter was appealed to the Court of Special Appeals. The Court determined that the Settlement Agreement did not bar Mrs. Collins from obtaining death benefits and offered three main reasons as to why.

First, LE § 9-722 states thatafter a claim has been filed by a covered employee or the dependents of a covered employee, a worker or his dependents may enter into an agreement for the final compromise and settlement of any current or future claim under the act, and therefore does not contemplate a covered worker settling and releasing his dependent's inchoate claim for death benefits within the settlement of his claim for benefits to which he is entitled during his life.

Second, that LE § 9-722(d) provides that settlement agreements are only binding upon the parties to the agreement. In this case, Mrs. Collins was not a party to her husband's workers' compensation case, did not sign the Settlement Agreement that includes the Release, and there is no suggestion that she participated in negotiating the Settlement Agreement. Therefore, the Agreement was not enforceable against her.

Third, that even if Collins could have unilaterally released Mrs. Collins' claim for death benefits, which he could not, the language of the Settlement Agreement did not manifest a clear intention on his part to do so, as it did not specifically mention Collins' death resulting from Collins' covered injury or any future claim for death benefits under the Act. Although the Settlement Agreement seemed to release future claims that could "arise" from his occupational disease, a claim for death benefits accrues and arises from a covered worker's death from the disease (or injury), not from the disease (or injury) itself.

A copy of the Opinion can be found at: