Wednesday, March 25, 2015

A Family Affair

One of the interesting things about workers' compensation law is how it can differ from state to state, and how the "arm" of the law can extend to people who may, or may not, be intended to be covered.

Indeed, exclusive remedy is a tricky fellow.

For instance, recently the Texas Supreme Court extended the protection of exclusive remedy beyond the actual employer to the insurance carrier handling a claim on the employer's behalf.

And it can go the other way too.

Last week the Kentucky Court of Appeals ruled that a worker's settlement of his comp claim didn't bar his widow from seeking death benefits after he died from his injuries.

Stephen Baytos sustained a torn thoracic aorta while lifting heavy boxes at work in February 2006.

Such an injury is often fatal, however, Baytos survived.

He settled his workers' compensation claim with his employer, the Family Dollar Stores, and accepted a lump-sum payment of $100,000 in exchange for a release of future liability.

After Baytos died in December 2009, his wife, Mamie, filed a motion to reopen his claim in order to seek death benefits.

Administrative Law Judge Richard Joiner ruled that she could reopen the claim only if she could prove that her husband's death had been caused by his 2006 injury.

When Joiner retired, Mamie's claim for death benefits was transferred to ALJ Thomas Polites. He found that Stephen's death was causally related to his workplace accident three years before and awarded Mamie death benefits.

Family Dollar appealed to the Workers' Compensation Board, which reversed. The board reasoned that Stephen’s agreement with Family Dollar prohibited Mamie from seeking death benefits, as her claim was derivative of his.

The Court of Appeals disagreed and vacated the board's decision on Friday based on a state Supreme Court case from 1930, called Brashear v. Old Straight Creek Coal Corp.

Brashear established that a surviving spouse's entitlement to death benefits is a "clear and separate right" from the worker's right to seek compensation in the first place.

Since the settlement agreement between Stephen Baytos and Dollar Store was not signed by Mamie, and the agreement did not include references to any future rights that she might have, the court found that Mamie's independent rights were not compromised.

Several states – including New Jersey, Idaho, Illinois, West Virginia, Colorado and New Mexico – share this view, the court noted.

Commentators to the WorkCompCentral story on the case say that the Kentucky court reached the right decision based on the law in that state, while others criticized it stating that it creates an unreasonable burden on employers to seek the signature of every dependent on a settlement.

So while workers' compensation may be the exclusive remedy for a worker's injury or death, that remedy may create rights and obligations that extend well beyond the actual worker.

The case is Baytos v. Family Dollar, No. 2014-CA-001053-WC.

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