Worker deaths could trigger a workers’ compensation claim for surviving dependents
Armando Gallegos had been working as a correctional officer for 13 years when he was attacked by 12 inmates at Kern Valley State Prison in April 2018. He suffered a broken vertebrae, a broken nose and a concussion, and spent five months trying to recover from those injuries.
Tragically, Gallegos died in September 2018 at age 56. Just recently, the Kern County Coroner’s Office released his cause of death: “congestive heart failure due to hypertensive cardiovascular disease, with contributing of advanced conduction disease and history of assault by inmates.”
The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation had recommended attempted homicide charges for inmates involved in the attack. The group said information on possible new charges was pending the results of the coroner’s autopsy.
The cause of death announcement brings to light legal issues that arise with the death of workers, and the compensation families can receive with a loved one’s passing.
Families do not often assume that a worker’s death could trigger a workers’ compensation claim on behalf of the surviving dependents. Death benefits may be due when death occurs through a single industrially-related event, or within 240 weeks of an industrial injury resulting in death. However, a new California Supreme Court case significantly broadened what can be determined an industrial death and lowers the standard of proof for such claims.
Learn more about workers’ compensation and work fatalities here:
The Standard of Proof
South Coast Framing Inc. v. WCAB (Clark) completely changed burden of proof for families seeking survivor death benefits. In South Coast Framing, the Court rejected previous standards of proof, such as “significant factor” and “material factor.” Instead, the court determined that the correct standard is that “the employment be one of the contributing causes without which the injury would not have occurred.”
The court described the standard of contributing cause as little crumbs off the crust of a 12-inch pie. In other words, the contributing cause would be so miniscule that you would not notice it if were missing.
Oftentimes, even determining contributing cause can seem challenging to surviving dependents. Sometimes the circumstances involving the death are so inexplicable that courts have indicated that they will rely on the fundamental principal that all reasonable doubts as to whether an injury is compensable are to be resolved in favor of the employee. This standard is particularly beneficial in cases where no autopsy is performed.
Death benefits are payments to a spouse, children or other dependents if an employee dies with employment being a contributing cause. This includes burial expenses of up to $10,000, and medical expenses incurred.
The amount of the death benefit depends on the number of dependents. In cases with a single adult dependent, the surviving dependent may be entitled to a benefit of $250,000. For three adult total dependents, that number goes up to $320,000. In the case of one or more totally dependent minors, payment of death benefits will continue at least until the youngest minor’s 18th birthday; disabled minors receive benefits for life. Death benefits are paid at the total temporary disability rate, which is two-thirds of the employee’s average weekly earnings.
The period within which to commence proceedings for the collection of death benefits is one year from death; or within 240 weeks of an industrial injury resulting in death.
The law distinguishes between total and partial dependents of the decedent. Minor children and spouses who earn $30,000 or less are conclusively considered total dependents. The Labor Code allows for two more types of dependents; those who are good-faith members of the deceased employee’s family or household, and those with specified marital, blood or adopted relationships with the decedent. These include:
- father or mother;.
- father-in-law or mother-in-law;.
- grandfather or grandmother;.
- brother or sister;.
- uncle or aunt;.
- brother-in-law or sister-in-law; and.
- nephew or niece.
In these cases, the amount of dependency must still be proven.
Workers’ compensation laws allow for additional benefits to the defendants of specified employees. These employees include public safety officers, firefighters, public officials, and correctional officers. The benefits range from extending survivor benefits beyond the age of eighteen for a minor dependent to scholarships for surviving minors.
Chain | Cohn | Clark is home to two state certified workers’ compensation specialist attorneys, Beatriz Trejo and James Yoro. Mr. Yoro has also been recognized in the prestigious U.S. News & World Report’s “Best Lawyers” listings.