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Wife finds husband dead at work: Can she sue for bystander emotional distress?

A worker’s wife discovered his dead body at work. Death benefits were paid through workers’ comp. Can she also collect for “bystander emotional distress?” 

Austin Irwin worked for All Habitat Services LLC in Connecticut. On July 16, 2011, Irwin was repairing an all-terrain vehicle that was up on a lift. The vehicle suddenly slipped off the lift, crushing and killing Irwin.

When his wife, Jenny Velecela, arrived at the workplace to bring Irwin his lunch, she discovered his body beneath the vehicle.

Velecela received payment for Irwin’s funeral expenses under All Habitat’s workers’ comp insurance and an additional $300,000 in benefits.

Irwin’s wife also sued for negligent infliction of bystander emotional distress. Velecela says she suffered severe emotional injuries by witnessing and discovering Irwin’s body.

All Habitat asked the trial court to throw out the case because the exclusive remedy of workers’ comp applied. The trial court granted the request. Velecela appealed to the Connecticut Supreme Court.

How broad is exclusive remedy of workers’ comp?

The state supreme court noted that the exclusive remedy provision in Connecticut’s workers’ comp law is broad, abolishing “all rights and claims,” including any from “representatives or dependents of such employees.”

The court said the key question was whether a bystander emotional distress claim arises out of the personal injury and death of an employee in the course of work.

In a previous case, a Connecticut court determined, “Because emotional distress by itself is not a bodily injury, it can be compensable only if it flows from the bodily injury of another person.” Therefore, whether the bystander can successfully pursue an emotional distress claim is governed by the fact that the emotional distress arose out of the same bodily injury.

Since there is a link between Velecela’s claim for bystander emotional distress and a compensable injury, her claim is barred.

The Connecticut Supreme Court found the trial court had properly dismissed Velecela’s case. The exclusive remedy of workers’ comp barred her from suing for bystander emotional distress.

(Jenny Velecela v. All Habitat Services LLC, Connecticut Supreme Court, No. SC 19589, 8/9/16)

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