Schnore v. Progress Rail Services – Death Benefits and Workers’ Compensation

Work-related injuries are an unfortunate reality of owning your own business. No matter how careful you try to be and how many safety measures you implement to help protect your workers, a work-related injury is bound to happen eventually. Hopefully, when it does occur, the injury will be minor and the employee’s recovery quick and relatively painless. Unfortunately, in some tragic cases, a work-related injury could result in the death of the employee. When this occurs, the surviving spouse or dependents will still be eligible for workers’ compensation benefits. The California workers’ compensation system requires almost all employers to purchase workers’ compensation insurance to cover this very sort of scenario. However, the system is only set up to cover the employees of the business. Independent contractors are not covered under workers’ compensation insurance or benefits. However, the California labor code does not specifically define what it means to be an independent contractor. In a recent case, the California Court of Appeals was faced with a case involving the death of a worker and the classification of independent contractor versus worker.

In Schnore v. Progress Rail Services, a widow brought a claim for death benefits under the workers’ compensation system. Her husband died after suffering a fatal cardiac arrhythmia while driving a truck belonging to the defendant. The widow claimed that she was entitled to death benefits and her husband had been an employee. By contrast, the employer contended that the husband was an independent contractor, and therefore that the widow was not entitled to benefits under workers’ compensation. The court looked to the controlling case on the subject, S.G. Borello & Sons, Inc. v. Department of Industrial Relations. In that case, the California Supreme Court set out a specific set of factors that will assist in determining if a worker is an employee or an independent contractor. In this case, the court considered the fact that the defendant was the one who established the pick up and drop off points for the deceased’s freight loads. The court determined that this method of control was key and that it suggested the deceased was an employee. The widow’s argument was also helped by the fact the trailer used by the deceased was a specialized trailer, which also suggested employment instead of being an independent contractor. The court accordingly rejected the employer’s independent contractor defense and ruled in favor of the widow.

Making a determination about worker classification can be crucial for your business. Call me today at (714) 516-8188. We can talk about your employees and your business.

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