The Georgia Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of a provision of the Workers’ Compensation Act that precludes non-dependent parents from recovering benefits following the death of an adult child killed in the course of employment.
In Barzey v. City of Cuthbert, plaintiff argued the provision violated her constitutional rights to equal protection and due process. The state supreme court disagreed, finding the law was sound, even though it left plaintiff with virtually no means of monetary recovery for her son’s death.
Workers’ compensation, the court reasoned, is established to allow exclusive remedy to an employee’s heir’s for the worker’s death during the course of employment, and the act expressly states that compensation for the death of a worker is to be payable only to dependents, and even then, only during dependency.
This was the first time the Georgia Supreme Court has been asked to weigh the issue of whether a legislature may decide to limit collection of workers’ compensation death benefit only to dependents. However, the court noted several other jurisdictions have weighed this same issue and reached the conclusion that such limitations are not unconstitutional.
Our Atlanta workers’ compensation attorneys note the court was swayed by the findings of the Alaska Supreme Court, the Alabama Supreme Court and the Montana Supreme Court in similar cases.
For example, in the 1985 case of Taylor v. Southeast-Harrison Western Corp., the Alaska Supreme Court found the fact that estates of deceased workers with dependents receive favored treatment over estates of workers leaving no dependents reflects lawmakers’ determination that the former are in need of greater compensation because they must grapple to replace income that had previously provided necessary support. The court found this logic to be “entirely reasonable.”
Similarly in 2011, the Montana Supreme Court in Walters v. Flathead Concrete Prods., Inc. decided directing wage loss benefits to those who depended on those wages, rather than those who were not dependent, was appropriate.
In the 1990 Alabama Supreme Court case of Yarchack v. Munford, Inc., the court ruled that limiting workers’ compensation to dependents is “rationally related to a legitimate state interest.”
Therefore, the Georgia Supreme Court found that treating dependents and non-dependent heirs differently serves the purpose of government and is not irrational.
In the Barzey case, the worker in question was employed with a local city government. Although he was employed within the public works department at the time of his death, he’d worked for 13 years before that as a firefighter for the city. He died when the city mower he was operating crashed into a ditch and overturned.
He was 37, single with no dependents.His mother was not considered a dependent, but she was his only heir.
Workers’ compensation law in these circumstances holds a non-dependent hair is entitled to compensation for burial expenses, but no more.
In addition to her constitutional arguments, which were rejected, the mother argued the trial court improperly granted summary judgment to the city on this issue before she was given a full 30 days to respond. The state supreme court found this to be true, but declined to reverse summary judgment, saying there was no indication she had any evidence that would have effectively countered that ruling, even if she’d been given the full 30 days to answer.
Although this decision is disappointing for many who feel it fundamentally unfair, it wasn’t entirely surprising given the case law precedent. Still, anyone who suffers the loss of a loved one due to a work-related accident should seek consultation with an experienced counsel. Even if workers’ compensation death benefits are not available, there may be a third-party liability lawsuit that is worthy of pursuit.
For information on Atlanta work injury compensation, contact J. Franklin Burns, P.C., at 1-404-303-7770.
Barzey v. City of Cuthbert, Sept. 22, 2014, Georgia Supreme Court
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