Case Update: Court of Appeals finds that Employee's settlement of his claims does not extinguish dependents' claims for death be


Bernard Collins, a volunteer firefighter, filed a workers' compensation claim for an alleged occupational disease of heart disease. The Employer and Insurer contested the claim. The Commission found the claim compensable, and the Employer and Insurer appealed. While the appeal was pending, Mr. Collins and the Employer and Insurer agreed to a settlement. The settlement was approved by the Commission. The Settlement Agreement included language intending to release and discharge all workers' compensation entitlements, including death benefits, that could arise out of Mr. Collins' work-related condition. Mr. Collins' wife was not a party to the settlement.

About two years after the settlement, Mr. Collins died from cardiac arrest. His wife filed a Dependent's Claim for Death Benefits with the Commission. The claim was contested by the Employer and Insurer. After a hearing, the Commission denied the claim for death benefits based on the previous settlement. Mrs. Collins appealed to the Circuit Court, which decided as a matter of law that the Release in the Agreement barred the claim for death benefits. A further appeal was filed with the Court of Special Appeals, which reversed, concluding that Mr. Collins did not have the power unilaterally to release Mrs. Collins's claim for death benefits. The intermediate appellate court stated that because Mrs. Collins was not a party to the Agreement, it did not extinguish Mrs. Collins's inchoate claim for death benefits.

The Court of Appeals agreed to review the matter to determine whether the Release operated to bar Mrs. Collins's claim for death benefits under the Act. The Court held that "(a) dependents may settle their future claims for death benefits; (b) an employee lacks the power to release his or her dependents' independent claims for death benefits; and (c) the Commission's approval of a settlement agreement that purports to release dependents' claims for death benefits does not render the release enforceable against a dependent who is not a party to the agreement." A dependent's claim for death benefits under the Act is independent of the employee's claim for benefits. The Act does not include any language suggesting that the employee must not have settled his or her claim for benefits relating to a compensable injury or disease in order for a dependent to retain a viable claim for death benefits based on the same injury or disease. Agreeing with the Court of Special Appeals, the Court held that Mrs. Collins was not a party to the Settlement Agreement and therefore, the Employer and Insurers could not enforce the Release against her. Mr. Collins's settlement of his claims under the Act did not extinguish his wife's future claim for death benefits.

The Employer and Insurer asserted that "Mr. Collins's attempt to release Mrs. Collins's potential claim for death benefits was a 'lawful exercise of his right to waive the claims of his heirs.'" However, the Court found that statement to be incorrect. "Mrs. Collins did not inherit her claim for death benefits as Mr. Collins's heir…Mrs. Collins's claim for death benefits is created by the Act and is independent of Mr. Collins's prior claim for disability benefits. Because Mr. Collins never could assert a claim for death benefits himself, it was not his prerogative to release such a claim. Only Mrs. Collins could release her claim to death benefits by personally entering into a settlement agreement with Petitioners that was subsequently approved by the Commission. She did not do so," the Court wrote.

The Court said LE §9-722 "allows for the settlement and release of a potential future claim for death benefits a dependent might otherwise have under the Act, but permits only the dependent to release such a claim" in support of its holding that "an employee's dependents may settle their future claims for death benefits while the employee is still alive." The Court said, "[w]e have confidence that employers/insurers, as well as dependents…will be able to effectively assess the value of inchoate claims for death benefits in light of each case's unique circumstances." However, the Court did not provide a mechanism for settlement of future claims for death benefits.

A copy of the Opinion can be found at:

Read our Case Update on the lower court's decision here: