Southcoast Framing v. WCAB and Death Benefits

Workers’ compensation benefits come in a six different potential varieties.  Among these is death benefits.  If a worker is killed because of work-related accident, the worker’s surviving family may apply for and receive survivorship benefits.  The amount awarded will vary depending on the number of dependents that the deceased worker had, as well as when the death occurred.  The dependents may file for survivorship benefits up to 240 weeks after the death occurred.

In a case called Southcoast Framing v. Worker’s Compensation Appeals Board, the California Supreme Court addressed the issue of death benefits and what the surviving spouse and dependents are required to prove.  In that case, Brandon Clark sustained a work-related injury when he fell ten feet, suffering neck, back, and head injuries.  He was prescribed medication by the workers’ compensation physician as well as his own family doctor.  Mr. Clark then died as a result of accidental toxic overdose of a deadly combination of the medications.  Mr. Clark’s surviving widow and three dependent children applied for workers’ compensation survivor benefits.  The Qualified Medical Expert refused to assign a percentage of causation to the medication combination in relation to Mr. Clark’s death.  However, another physician testified that the combination of medication was toxic and lead to Mr. Clark’s death.   The trail judge determined that the combination of the medicines contributed to Mr. Clark’s death and accordingly approved the claim.  The appellate court reversed, holding that the medications were not “a substantial or material cause” of Mr. Clark’s death.

The California Supreme Court noted that the workers’ compensation system in California is a no-fault system designed to ensure that workers receive compensation while the employers are insulated from tort liability.  The Supreme Court ruled that the Court of Appeals inappropriately applied the tort standard of causation, which is incorrect and inappropriate in light of the no-fault system under workers’ compensation.  The Court also pointed out that it is the role of the legislature to extend or expand the burden of proof for death benefits cases, not that of the courts.  Because the legislature had decided that the application of proximate cause as the standard in workers’ compensation cases, the Supreme Court would not rule a different standard was appropriate.  Mr. Clark’s widow and children were permitted to recover survivorship benefits because the medication was used by Mr. Clark to treat his work-related injury and were the ultimate cause of his death.

If you have questions about survivorship benefits in workers’ compensation cases, contact me today at (714) 516-8188. We can discuss the state of the law and how that might impact your business.

Death Benefits and Workers’ Compensation

Workers’ compensation laws and insurance provide that if a worker is injured on the job, he or she is probably entitled to some form of compensation. If the worst happens and the worker dies in a work-related incident, workers’ compensation benefits do not expire with the worker’s life. California law provides measures for the deceased worker’s family to collect workers’ compensation benefits if the worker is killed in a work-related incident. These are called “death benefits” and are available to certain individuals who may have been dependent on the deceased worker for financial care or support.

Not everyone  is eligible to receive death benefits. A person must demonstrate that he or she was fully or partially dependent on the deceased employee in order to receive death benefits. A person may receive benefits if he or she was fully or even just partially dependent on the deceased worker. Usually a person must have been part of the deceased employee’s household in order to be considered dependent, such as a child or a spouse. The person must also have relied on the deceased employee for financial support.  Some family members are considered under California law to automatically be fully dependent, including children under the age of 18, mentally disabled children of any age (if that child is unable to make their own living), or a spouse that earned less than $30,000 in the twelve months preceding the employee’s death.

A dependent may apply for two different types of workers’ compensation benefits. One of these is burial expenses. The workers’ compensation covers reasonable burial expenses, up to a maximum amount of $10,000. The other type of benefits, as mentioned above, are death benefits. The amounts are $250,000 for one dependent, $290,000 for two dependents, and $320,000 for three or more dependents. If there is more than one full dependent, typically partial dependents will not be eligible for death benefits. If that is the case, the partial dependent may apply to receive four times the annual amount that he or she received from the deceased worker.  Moreover, a child under the age of 18 will continue to receive monetary payments until he or she reaches the age of majority. If there is more than one child, these payments continue until the youngest child turns 18. The calculation of Death Benefits for multiple dependents can be complicated.

If your business is facing a workers’ compensation claim for death benefits, contact me today at (714) 516-8188. We will discuss the elements of the claim with you and your business’s potential obligation to the deceased’s dependents.

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