SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

March 15, 2014

SJC throws out suit over caseworker's death

Stephanie Moulton was murdered by resident of group home

BY JULIE MANGANIS
STAFF WRITER

---- — PEABODY — The Supreme Judicial Court has dismissed a wrongful death lawsuit brought by the family of a Peabody woman killed by a resident of a group home where she worked in 2011, finding that the woman’s parents don’t have standing.

In a ruling released yesterday, the SJC found that the directors of North Suffolk Mental Health are not liable for damages to the family of Stephanie Moulton. The private, nonprofit agency was under contract with the state to run the Revere group home where Moulton worked and where Deshawn Chappell, the man who murdered her, was living.

Chappell, 30, was convicted last year of first-degree murder in Moulton’s death, after a Suffolk Superior Court jury rejected his insanity defense. He is serving life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Moulton was 25 and a caseworker at the Revere group home. On the morning of Jan. 20, 2011, she was alone with Chappell, a man with a history of mental illness and violence, when, the jury found, she was attacked and killed. Chappell dumped her body behind a church in Lynn.

Moulton’s parents and their attorneys, Barry Feinstein and John Regan, sought to hold the directors of North Suffolk Mental Health liable for damages, pointing to failures by administrators to protect employees or advise them of the risks posed by residents like Chappell.

Attorneys for the board members tried to have the case dismissed in Middlesex Superior Court, but Judge Douglas Wilkins denied their motion. They appealed that ruling.

The Supreme Judicial Court took note of the filing in the Appeals Court and decided to take up the issue, hearing arguments in November.

In yesterday’s ruling, the justices sided with lawyers for the board of directors and with the authors of several friend-of-the-court briefs filed on behalf of professional liability insurance providers and human services organizations.

The justices concluded that under the state’s workers’ compensation law, only the state could pursue remedies against an employer and that the board members are immune from liability.

In the decision, the court found that the issue was properly being decided prior to trial, and “the director defendants, acting as Moulton’s employer when adopting or failing to adopt the workplace policies at issue, are immune from suit under the exclusive remedy provision of the act for injuries Moulton sustained while acting within the course of her employment.”

“We conclude also that the directors, as Moulton’s employer, owed no fiduciary duty to their employee, and any corrective action for an alleged breach of their fiduciary duty to North Suffolk must be sought by the Attorney General,” the decision, written by Justice Barbara Lenk, said. “The complaint against the director defendants accordingly must be dismissed.”

Regan, who hadn’t yet read the ruling yesterday morning, declined comment.

The suit also named Chappell, who is indigent and in prison, and the state, but there are limits to the amount the family could seek from the government.

Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, via email at jmanganis@salemnews.com or on Twitter @SNJulieManganis.