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Court Finds Estate Has Standing to Sue in Workers’ Compensation Lawsuit

The Supreme Court of Montana recently ruled on a case that decided whether the Workers’ Compensation Court properly held that it lacked jurisdiction to consider an estate’s petition because the personal representative of the estate lacked standing. The court reversed and remanded the lower court’s decision to dismiss the representative’s petition.

Facts of the Case

Cristita Moreau’s husband Erwin worked at the W.R. Grace mine from 1963 until 1992. He passed away in 2009 from asbestos-related lung cancer, and in 2010 Ms. Moreau filed a claim for occupational disease benefits with her husband’s workers’ compensation insurance carrier as a personal representative of his estate. The insurance company, Transportation Insurance, denied the claim.

In 2012, Ms. Moreau filed a petition in Workers’ Compensation Court to seek a determination of Transportation’s liability for the costs of her husband’s medical care. The next year, Transportation accepted liability and entered into a settlement agreement. The insurance company reimbursed Medicaid, other providers, and Mr. Moreau’s estate individually for medical expenses that they had paid for his care.

The Libby Medical Plan paid over $95,000 of Mr. Moreau’s medical expenses, which is an entity established and funded by the W.R. Grace mine to pay for the medical care of employees who were injured by asbestos exposure. The Libby Medical Plan refused reimbursement from Transportation for the medical expenses paid on Mr. Moreau’s behalf. Cristita Moreau then demanded that the amount of reimbursement declined be paid either to her husband’s estate or to a charity selected by the estate. Transportation refused and Ms. Moreau filed a second petition in Workers’ Compensation Court.

Court Ruling

The Workers’ Compensation Court denied the second petition, claiming that it lacked jurisdiction to hear the matter. It concluded that since Mr. Moreau received medical care that was paid by the plan, any further recovery would be seen as double payment. It also stated that as a personal representative of the estate Ms. Moreau lacked standing.

Mr. Moreau appealed to the Montana Supreme Court on the issue. The Court held that the Worker’s Compensation Court has the jurisdiction to hear disputes concerning workers’ compensation benefits. In regards to the question of standing, the determining factor is whether a party is entitled to have the court decide the merits of the dispute. A party’s lack of standing does not deprive a court of underlying subject matter jurisdiction.

In this case, Mr. Moreau was appearing in court through his personal representative Ms. Moreau. The Workers’ Compensation Act is binding on employers and employees, as well as their representative. Mr. Moreau was already established as an employee when Transportation and Ms. Moreau litigated her first claim in Workers’ Compensation Court.

The plain language of the act entitles Ms. Moreau, as a personal representative of the estate of an employee, to bring the matter before the Workers’ Compensation Court in that state. Therefore, the Supreme Court of Montana reversed the lower court’s ruling and remanded the case back to the Workers’ Compensation Court.

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