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In re Collins

Court of Special Appeals of Maryland

August 2, 2019

IN THE MATTER OF BERNARD COLLINS

          Circuit Court for Calvert County Case No. C-O4-CV-17-000175

          Arthur, Shaw Geter, Eyler, Deborah S. (Senior Judge, Specially Assigned), JJ.

          OPINION [*]

          Eyler, Deborah S., J.

         On June 8, 2017, Bernard Collins, age 72, died of a heart attack brought on by heart disease and hypertension. He had worked for many years for the Huntingtown Volunteer Fire Department ("Huntingtown"), an appellee, as a volunteer firefighter. He had filed a claim with the Workers' Compensation Commission ("the Commission") against Huntingtown and two of its insurers, Chesapeake Employers Insurance Company ("Chesapeake") and Selective Insurance Company of America ("Selective"), also appellees, on the ground that his heart disease and hypertension were an occupational disease. That claim was settled.

         The appellant in this case is Peggy Collins, Mr. Collins's widow. After her husband's death, she filed a claim in the Commission against the appellees for death benefits, alleging that his death resulted from his occupational disease. The Commission ruled that Mrs. Collins's claim was barred by the release of claims Mr. Collins had given in settling his own claim. In the Circuit Court for Calvert County, Mrs. Collins petitioned for judicial review of that decision. Cross-motions for summary judgment were filed and, after a hearing, the circuit court agreed with the Commission and granted summary judgment in favor of Huntingtown and the insurers.

         Mrs. Collins noted this appeal, posing one question, which we have rephrased as follows:

Did the release in the settlement agreement between Mr. Collins, Huntingtown, Chesapeake, and Selective operate to bar Mrs. Collins's claim for death benefits under the Workers' Compensation Act?

         For the following reasons, we hold that the release did not bar Mrs. Collins's claim for death benefits. Accordingly, we shall reverse the judgment of the circuit court with instructions to enter summary judgment in favor of Mrs. Collins and remand the case to the Commission for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.

         FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS

         The pertinent facts are undisputed. On February 13, 2012, Mr. Collins, then age 67, [1] filed a workers' compensation claim with the Commission, alleging that he had developed heart disease and hypertension caused by his firefighting work for Huntingtown. The Maryland Workers' Compensation Act ("the Act") creates a presumption of compensability for firefighters who develop heart disease and hypertension. See Md. Code (1999, 2008 Repl. Vol., 2011 Supp.), § 9-503(a) of the Labor and Employment Article ("LE"). Mr. Collins claimed that as of May 6, 2011, when Huntingtown was insured by Chesapeake, he became disabled due to his occupational disease.

         Huntingtown and Chesapeake contested the claim. Chesapeake disputed the May 6, 2011 date of disablement, contending the correct date was December 12, 1998, when Mr. Collins underwent surgery for an aortic dissection. It successfully interpleaded Selective, which insured Huntingtown in 1998.

         On March 19, 2014, following an evidentiary hearing, the Commission found that Mr. Collins had sustained an occupational disease (heart disease and hypertension), arising out of and in the course of his employment as a firefighter; that his last injurious exposure was with Huntingtown; and that he was temporarily totally disabled as of May 6, 2011, for one day, and from July 7, 2011 through July 24, 2011. Later, the Commission found that Mr. Collins's average weekly wage was $152.50.[2]

         In the Circuit Court for Calvert County, Huntingtown and Chesapeake filed petitions for judicial review of the Commission's decision. They both contested compensability generally and Chesapeake contested the Commission's finding that the date of last injurious exposure occurred in 2011. In a cross-petition, Mr. Collins disputed the calculation of his average weekly wage.

         While the petitions were pending, Mr. Collins and the appellees agreed to settle the claim and filed a stipulation of dismissal in the circuit court, which on March 13, 2015, dismissed the case and remanded the matter to the Commission.

         On May 14, 2015, Mr. Collins entered into an "Agreement of Final Compromise and Settlement" ("the Agreement") with Huntingtown, as employer, Chesapeake, as the insurer for Huntingtown, and Selective, as the "alleged insurer" of Huntingtown. After reciting the procedural background of Mr. Collins's claim, the Agreement provided that, as part of the settlement, the parties agreed that Mr. Collins's average weekly wage as of his date of disablement was $526.87; that Selective would pay him the lump sum of $100, 000; and that Chesapeake would pay him the lump sum of $50, 000 and fund a "Medicare Set Aside" annuity in the total amount of $47, 192. The annuity would be funded with an initial lump sum payment of $9, 438.08, followed by annual payments of $4, 194.88 for nine years during Mr. Collins's lifetime. Huntingtown and Chesapeake further agreed to pay Mr. Collins's "causally related medical expenses" for "up to 45 days after the date [the Agreement was approved by the Commission], or until the initial [payment funding the Medicare Set-Aside was made], whichever date [came] first[.]" Mr. Collins otherwise released Huntingtown, Chesapeake, and Selective from any responsibility for medical expenses incurred beyond 45-days from the date the Agreement was approved by the Commission.

         At Paragraph 11 of the Agreement, Mr. Collins, as "the Claimant," agreed to the following language of release ("the 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 Agreement was signed by Mr. Collins, his attorney, and representatives of Huntingtown, Chesapeake, and Selective. It was filed with the Commission on May 19, 2015, along with a "Settlement Worksheet," a "Claimant's Affidavit in Support of Settlement," a "Medicare Set-Aside Allocation Recommendation" prepared by a third-party firm, a letter from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services approving the Medicare Set-Aside, and copies of medical bills for treatment Mr. Collins already had received. In the "Claimant's Affidavit," which must be submitted with a settlement agreement, Mr. Collins asked the Commission "to approve the settlement of [his] claim" and stated that he was "voluntarily settling [his] claim." He acknowledged that by doing so, he was giving up the right to future hearings before the Commission; to "vocational rehabilitation services and to payment during [his] lifetime for any medical treatment related to [his] claim, except as provided [in the Agreement]"; to compensation from the Subsequent Injury Fund, except as provided in the Agreement; to seek to reopen his claim if his condition worsened; and to appeal to the circuit court, this Court, or the Court of Appeals.

         On June 4, 2015, the Commission approved the Agreement pursuant to LE section 9-722.

         Just over two years later, Mr. Collins died from a cardiac arrest secondary to his heart disease and hypertension. On July 11, 2017, Mrs. Collins filed a "Dependent's Claim for Death Benefits" with the Commission, pursuant to LE sections 9-683.1 through 9-683.5. On the claim form, she gave May 6, 2011 as Mr. Collins's "Date of Injury" and $1, 800 as his average weekly wage. She sought dependency benefits and reimbursement for Mr. Collins's funeral expenses.

         The Commission held a hearing on Mrs. Collins's claim on September 7, 2017. The issues in dispute were whether the Release barred Mrs. Collins from receiving death benefits; Mr. Collins's date of disablement; his average weekly wage; and whether Mrs. Collins was partially or wholly dependent upon Mr. Collins when he became disabled.

         By order of September 25, 2017, the Commission ruled that due to the Release, Mrs. Collins had "no[] right to survivorship/death benefits[, ]" and denied the claim without reaching the other issues.

         In the Circuit Court for Calvert County, Mrs. Collins filed a timely petition for judicial review and prayed a jury trial. Huntingtown and Chesapeake opposed the petition and moved for summary judgment on the issue of release.[3] Mrs. Collins opposed the motion and filed a cross-motion for summary judgment on that issue.

         On May 1, 2018, after a hearing on the motions, the circuit court entered an opinion and order determining that the Release barred Mrs. Collins's claim, and granted summary judgment in favor of Huntingtown and Chesapeake. It subsequently entered an order clarifying that judgment also was granted in favor of Selective. This timely appeal followed.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         As in any "typical administrative agency appeal . . . we . . . look through the circuit court judgment to review the decision of the Commission." Stine v. MontgomeryCty., 237 Md.App. 374, 381 ...


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