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.