What Happens If You Die at Work?

Jul 23, 2019 | WC & Other Laws

What happens if you die at work?

Sometimes, at Kaplan Morrell, Workers’ Compensation in Colorado can take a morbid turn because we have to deal with individuals who die at work—each of those cases kind of presents different issues. One of the weird things about dealing with work injuries, particularly fatalities, is often how an emotional, tragic, and shocking event can almost be boiled down to sometimes fundamental, unemotional, little data points. Unfortunately, that is sometimes what the law does as we’re trying to figure out what the ramifications are, at least under workers’ compensation, when an employee dies at work.

What happens if you die at work? Case Number One

The first case is about a gentleman who worked for a prominent retailer and while at work, he was pushing a cart when all of a sudden, he just fell backward. Bang, no flailing of the arms, no slip and fall, no trying to guard, just went and hit his head. The blow to the head was severe enough that he passed away that day. The family is distraught, the family has a lot of questions, and we are going to see what we can do about answering some of those questions about what happened. One of the issues that came up in that particular case is we don’t even know if it is covered under workers’ compensation.

Typically for an injury, including a fatality, to be covered under workers’ compensation, you have to show three things:

  1. You have to show that you are in the course and scope of your job, meaning you are engaged in an activity that furthers your job or is a reasonable part of it.
  2. You need to show that something happened or was present at work to cause you to have an injury.
  3. You need to be injured. Often that’s pretty basic. I’m lifting a box, and it’s heavy. I hurt my back. I’m walking down a hallway, and there’s a puddle of water, and I slip and fall on it.

But in this case, a comp comes into what we call unexplained falls, and the question is, are unexplained falls covered under workers’ compensation?

The Supreme Court has tried to parse out what it means, and typically, unexplained falls, even if you cannot give details, are covered under workers’ compensation unless there is proof that what occurred was something of an entirely personal nature. So, for example, if this gentleman had low blood pressure and just fainted, but he could have fainted anywhere, chances are, it is not covered under workers’ compensation. If it had been a heart attack at work, it was not, worker’s compensation would not cover it.

As with law, there are always exceptions, and that’s why one of the favorite answers of lawyers whenever asked a question is – the answer is, “It depends.”

If you have a fainting spell because you get lightheaded because you have low blood pressure, and you’re on a scaffold, or you’re on a ladder, you are in a unique hazardous place. Now, instead of falling from standing down on the ground, you’re falling from a four-foot height, then that is covered under workers’ compensation because the work, combined with that personal condition, makes the injury even worse. With this gentleman, we don’t know whether or not his case is covered under workers’ compensation and whether the family will get benefits.

What happens if you die at work? Case Number Two

Case number two is a horrible, tragic case, again, where somebody’s life turns on a dime. A gentleman is required to travel for his employment. As part of his occupation, he goes to various laboratories to check on equipment, et cetera. He’s traveling within Colorado, goes to the city and arrives on a Monday. The following Wednesday, he’s hospitalized with a bacterial infection, and in seven days, he’s dead. How can life turn on a dime? His daughters, who are in their 20s, contacted us to find out what options there were. Let’s put aside the question of – whether we can prove that the infection occurred at his work or in the course of his job. Let’s pretend that’s true, although that’s going to be a challenge.

The problem was the daughters; all of his children are over the age of 21, so they are no longer, by law, under, at least, workers’ compensation definition, dependents.

He is also divorced. He hasn’t remarried, so there’s no spouse. There are no dependents benefits at all, which means that workers’ compensation would pay just two things: the medical bills associated with the hospital stay and they would pay a $7,000 funeral benefit, that’s it.

That’s depressing to tell somebody who’s crying in front of you that, as far as workers’ compensation goes, the benefits are extraordinarily limited. If you die on the job and you do not leave underage children or a spouse, the insurance company is just looking at paying $7,000, and that’s it.

RELATED TOPIC: Workers Comp Claim and Divorce – Important Items to Consider

Case Number Three

Let’s go to the third case, where there are dependents. This gentleman was breaking down tires in an industrial facility. He was using a blow torch. The tires were supposed to be drained of anything in them. This particular tire was not, and it exploded. He died at work. This gentleman left two children. I’ll call them children A and B. A is five years old. A is our client. B is another child from a different mother, and B is two years old. When a worker dies, leaving underage dependents, the children continue to receive two-thirds of that worker’s average weekly wage. If this gentleman made $900 a week, two-thirds of that was $600. Typically what courts will do if there are just two children, absent some extraordinary circumstances, they’ll just split down that $600 benefit and send $300 to each child. So A’s getting $300, B’s getting $300.

Why is it getting complicated?

B’s mom is saying that she is the common-law wife of the worker, and she’s making a claim and trying to prove that. If she can establish that, spouses are entitled to two-thirds of the lost wages, meaning she would be eligible to collect some portion of that $600 for life or until she gets remarried. A has an incentive to look very closely to see if it is true that B’s mom is also a spouse and entitled to benefits because this woman is not related to him. Once A reaches 18, then A will no longer get death benefits under workers’ compensation unless they enroll in an accredited school. In that case, then the benefits continue until the child reaches 21. Once A reaches 21, his $300 then would go to B, so now B would be getting $600 every week until she reaches 18 or 21 if she’s in school.

So, I have a bit of a morbid frame of mind here at Kaplan Morrell, but as you can tell, these cases are complicated. They’re fact-dependent. What Happens If You Die at Work?

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