This article originally appeared in Goldberg Segalla’s On Appeal. Read the issue here.
What happens to an award when a claimant dies suddenly, without a spouse or children?
Goldberg Segalla recently obtained a favorable decision in defending a workers’ compensation appeal before the New York State Supreme Court, Appellate Division, Third Department. Estate of Youngjohn v. Berry Plastics Corp. involved the interplay between a posthumous schedule loss of use award and the Lacroix v. Syracuse Exec. Air Serv. decision, which holds that a schedule loss of use award could be paid in one lump sum.
In Youngjohn, the claimant had reached maximum medical improvement, and the parties reached a tentative stipulation that would have awarded the claimant well over 300 weeks of benefits. But before the stipulation could be approved by the New York State Workers’ Compensation Board, the claimant died for reasons unrelated to his claim. He wasn’t married, nor did he have children.
Given the narrow facts, Goldberg Segalla partner Cory A. DeCresenza and associate Matthew J. DeMarco argued under Workers’ Compensation Law Section 15(4) that only the portion of the schedule loss of use award that had accrued before the claimant’s death could be awarded, plus payment of funeral expenses. In this case, that meant that the claimant’s estate was owed approximately 115 weeks of awards, plus payment of funeral expenses as the claimant did not have a qualifying spouse or dependents. In response, the claimant’s attorney argued that the language in Section 15(4) was superseded by later statutory modifications, supported by case law indicating that a schedule is not assignable to any particular period of time and could therefore be paid in one lump sum.
The law judge agreed with the claimant’s attorney and awarded the entire remaining permanency award—including awards that theoretically would have accrued after the claimant’s death—to the claimant’s estate. Cory and Matt appealed to the Board Panel, insisting that only the remaining weeks of schedule loss of use award that accrued before the claimant’s death were payable, plus funeral expenses. On appeal, the Board Panel rescinded that finding, and decided that only payment for funeral expenses was due. The claimant’s attorney appealed to the Third Department, which finally got it right: The carrier was directed to pay the remaining weeks of the schedule loss of use award that accrued before death, plus payment for funeral expenses.
The net result saved the carrier approximately $140,000, based solely on a rarely used statute that only applies in very specific situations—that is, when a claimant dies for unrelated reasons, without a spouse or dependents, before a schedule loss of use is awarded by the board. Had the claimant lived another month or two—enough time for the parties to finalize the stipulation—he would have received the full value of the schedules. This case serves as a reminder that workers’ compensation law is full of little quirks that sometimes lead to strange, unexpected outcomes.