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Workplace Death Entitles Survivors to Benefits, Possible Third-Party Lawsuit

One of the most dreaded scenarios a family can face is the loss of a loved one in a workplace accident.
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The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that there were nearly 3 million work-related injuries and illnesses in private industry in 2012. Comparatively there were 4,628 workplace deaths that year, with 76 of those reported in Georgia. (These figures are low, as research has shown not all work-related ailments and injuries are properly reported to the government.)

Atlanta workers’ compensation lawyers recognize that these are some of the lowest figures since the early 1990s. Still, when each death occurs, loved ones are blind-sided. They may not realize, for example, that no matter how negligent an employer was in causing a worker’s death, that company likely cannot be sued by the family.

That leaves families with two legal options: The first is to claim workers’ compensation death benefits. The second is to explore the possibility of a third-party liability lawsuit. In some cases, families may have the option to do both. The possibilities should be explored with a personal injury attorney experienced in Atlanta workers’ compensation claims.

The guidelines for survivor benefits are fixed, allowing for coverage of burial expenses and two-thirds of the average weekly wage of the worker, up to $500. The maximum payout for a widowed spouse with no children is $150,000. Benefits will continue until the spouse remarries or cohabitates with another partner. A dependent child may receive weekly benefits until he or she reaches the age of 18.

Still, this may not be enough to make ends meet, and there could be other at-fault parties who share blame. For example, if a construction worker is killed on the job, his direct employer may be shielded from litigation under workers’ compensation law, but the general contractor or owner of the property may not be similarly protected.

While sometimes these matters are relatively straightforward, there are circumstances that can create confusion. Such was the case recently before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, reviewing the Florida case of Stephens v. Mid-Continent Casualty Co.

Here, the worker was helping to install a modular home on property owned by private citizens. One day, while climbing down a ladder that was attached to the side of the two-story home, the ladder fell away from the house. The worker fell to the ground. He was critically injured, and pronounced dead on the way to the hospital.

The worker’s widow subsequently filed a lawsuit against several parties, including another contractor present on the project. At the time, that firm held a commercial general liability insurance policy. Under that policy, the insurance firm agreed to pay whatever sums the contractor was legally obligated to pay due to damages resulting from bodily injury or property damage, and that the insurance company would defend or indemnify the company against any such claims.

The policy contained an employee exclusion clause, indicating that workers who suffered injuries or damage by the company would be excluded because, just like in Georgia, workers in Florida have the exclusive remedy of workers’ compensation for work-related injuries.

When the contractor learned of the worker’s widow’s lawsuit, it filed a claim with its insurer, seeking legal defense. The insurer denied the claim, citing the employee exclusion clause. The company stated that the worker was employed by a subcontractor, and that this made him a “statutory employee.”

The general contractor thus proceeded to court with its own attorney, and ended up negotiating a mediated settlement agreement of $4.3 million. The contractor signed over its insurance collection rights to the widow.

However, the insurer continued to deny the claim, refusing to honor the settlement agreement. The widow thus filed a lawsuit against the insurer, seeking to enforce the settlement agreement.

The trial court subsequently granted the insurer’s motion for summary judgment, finding that the settlement agreement against the insurer couldn’t be enforced. The district court determined that because the deceased worker had been an employee, he was exempted.

The question that ultimately went before the federal appellate court was whether the agreement was reasonable and made in good faith and whether the deceased worker had in fact been an employee.

The court sided with the employer, finding that the agreement was reasonable and the worker was an employee. That meant the widow couldn’t enforce the settlement agreement against the contractor.

Every case is going to be different, depending on the worker hierarchy, company structure and other factors. Consulting with an experienced workers’ compensation attorney is the best way to determine the appropriate course of action moving forward.

For information on death benefits through Georgia workers’ compensation, contact J. Franklin Burns, P.C., at 1-404-303-7770.

Additional Resources:
Stephens v. Mid-Continent Casualty Co., April 24, 2014, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit
More Blog Entries:
Noise Increases Atlanta Work-Accident Risks, April 23, 2014, Atlanta Workers’ Compensation Lawyer Blog