Law Court Upholds Judgment in Wrongful Death Case

On Tuesday, July 12, 2016, the Law Court (Saufley, J.), in Estate of Kay v. Estate of Wiggins, 2016 ME 108, upheld summary judgment in favor of defendants Budget Truck Rental, LLC and the Estate of Douglas Wiggins in a wrongful death action maintained by the Estate of Dennis Kay for his death in a work-related motor vehicle accident. In its ruling, the Law Court concluded that Wiggins—and through principles of vicarious liability, Budget Truck Rental, LLC—was in compliance with the Maine Workers’ Compensation Act at the time of the accident and that, therefore, the Act’s exclusivity provisions barred any claims against Wiggins. 

In 2008, Dennis Kay began working for Option Rentals—a furniture rental business owned by Douglas Wiggins. As part of its regular business, Option Rentals maintained an agreement with Budget Truck Rental, LLC (hereinafter “Budget”) to transfer Budget vehicles from one destination to another in exchange for payment. As part of his employment with Option Rentals, Kay regularly transported Budget vehicles at Wiggins’ instruction. On December 30, 2011, Kay was instructed to complete a Budget transfer, but informed Wiggins that he “felt uncomfortable” doing so due to inclement weather. Wiggins then instructed Kay to perform the transfer sometime on the morning of December 31, 2011. On the morning of December 31, 2011, Kay began transport of the Budget vehicle. Sadly, the Budget truck he was operating hit a patch of ice and slid off of the roadway, ejecting Kay, who died from his injuries. Wiggins died of unrelated causes in 2013. 

In July 2013 the Estate of Kay (hereinafter “Kay”) filed a complaint against the Estate of Wiggins (hereinafter “Wiggins”) and Budget alleging wrongful death caused by Wiggins and Budget, and punitive damages. The complaint repeatedly alleged that Kay was “an employee” of Wiggins. 

In October 2014, Wiggins filed a motion to dismiss the complaint as barred by Maine’s Workers’ Compensation Act (hereinafter “the Act”), attaching proof that Wiggins had a State-accepted workers’ compensation insurance policy in December 2011. Following a hearing the lower court ruled summarily in favor of Wiggins’ motion to dismiss, stating that there was no genuine issue of material fact as to whether Wiggins had obtained worker’s compensation insurance sufficient to invoke the immunity and exclusivity provisions of the Act, and because Kay had argued exclusively that he was an employee, not an independent contractor. Additionally, the lower court granted Budget’s motion for summary judgment on the ground that there was no genuine issue of material fact regarding proximate cause. Kay then timely appealed. 

Upon review, the Law Court first addressed whether the lower court properly dismissed Kay’s claim against Wiggins. In so doing, the Court reiterated that an employer who has secured the payment of workers’ compensation for its employees is exempt from civil actions for death resulting from injuries sustained by an employee incurred during the course of employment. 39-A M.R.S. §§ 104, 403(1) (2015). The Court further noted that where an employer is exempt from civil actions due to compliance with the Act, an employee’s only remedy is to pursue a claim for workers’ compensation benefits. Ultimately the Court concluded that where Wiggins provided “competent evidence” of compliance with the Act—and Kay failed to rebut said evidence, and even argued that he was an employee of Wiggins—the lower court properly found that Wiggins was in compliance with, and the claim was barred by, the Act.

Next, the Court examined whether the lower court properly granted Budget’s motion for summary judgment. Before the Court, Kay argued that Budget was vicariously liable for Wiggins’ actions because Budget had control over Wiggins. Oddly, Kay also argued that the Act’s exclusivity provision does not apply to Budget because Wiggins was an independent contractor. Declining to determine whether Wiggins was indeed an employee or independent contractor of Budget, the Court ruled that it need only consider that if Budget were vicariously liable for Kay’s death, it stood in the shoes of Wiggins against whom any claims were barred by his compliance with the Act, as discussed supra

Judgment Affirmed


Caleb J. Gannon, Esq. for Kay

Brendan O’Rourke, Esq. for Budget

Elizabeth Germani, Esq. for Wiggins

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