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Barzey v. City of Cuthbert – Workers’ Compensation Death Benefits With No Dependent Relatives

In cases where an employee with no dependents is killed in a work-related accident, relatives in many jurisdictions face a paradox. They can’t pursue recovery for death benefits under workers’ compensation law because the law only allows dependents to collect these payments. On the other hand, they also can’t file a tort action against the employer because of the exclusive remedy principle.

Often, the only option is to explore a third-party liability lawsuit.gavel21

There have been various challenges to the exclusive remedy provision of workers’ compensation law, most recently in Florida where the 11th Circuit in Miami-Dade found it unconstitutional because the remedies  are inferior to those surviving relatives could obtain in a tort action. However, this case didn’t directly address the fact that some persons who might otherwise be able to pursue recovery in a tort (as the personal representatives of a decedent’s estate) might not be allowed to seek worker’s compensation benefits as a non-dependent.

Our Fort Myers wrongful death lawyers know there are a number of other places where this very issues has been weighed recently. One of those was out Barzey v. City of Cuthbert, where the Georgia Supreme Court was asked to weigh constitutionality of workers’ compensation law as exclusive remedy where it barred compensation to the decedent’s mother, his next of kin, even though she was not a dependent. She was also denied the ability to file a wrongful death lawsuit.

According to court records, plaintiff’s son was an employee of a local city government when he was involved in a work-related accident that claimed his life. He was operating a city mower when he crashed into a ditch. He was 37 at the time of his 2010 death. He was not married, had no children and no dependents or even heirs other than his mother.

However, his mother was not legally dependent on her son, and she was therefore not entitled to seek compensation under Georgia’s Workers’ Compensation Act. Under this law, death benefits can only be paid to dependents, and the cost of burial is the only expense for which an employer must pay – negligent or not.

The man’s mother filed suit against the city, alleging the distinction was a violation of her rights to equal protection and due process. The trial court denied these assertions in granting summary judgment to defendant. That ruling has now been affirmed by the state supreme court. In its reasoning, the court indicated generally, a statute doesn’t violate due process so long as it bears rational relationship to a legitimate objective of government or legitimate end of government not barred under the U.S. Constitution.

Many other jurisdictions, the court noted, have allowed workers’ compensation benefits to be limited to dependents. That’s because workers’ compensation is social insurance. In the event of a death, the goal is to assure dependents do not become destitute in the wake of a work-related accident.

A similar finding was reached in Virginia with the 2012 case of Giordano v. McBar Indusries, et al. There, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled the trial court did not err in barring a non-dependent spouse from filing a wrongful death action against the worker’s employer, even though she was not entitled to collect workers’ compensation benefits either. However, she was entitled to continue pursue of her third-party negligence claim as the personal representative of her deceased husband’s estate.

If you have been injured in an accident, contact the Hollander Law Firm at (888) 751-7770 for a free and confidential consultation. There is no fee unless we win.

Additional Resources:

Barzey v. City of Cuthbert, Sept. 22, 2014, Georgia Supreme Court

More Blog Entries:

Harris v. Haynes – Underinsured Motorist Coverage Undercut by Workers’ Comp, Sept. 9, 2014, Fort Myers Work Injury Lawyer Blog