Normally, when a worker dies on the job in Ohio, the worker’s dependent family members—such as a surviving spouse and children—are entitled to workers’ compensation death benefits. In a recent case handled by Graham & Graham, the Industrial Commission of Ohio (IC) found that a woman was not entitled to death benefits because she wasn’t married to a man who was killed at work. However, Graham & Graham appealed this decision to the 10th District Court of Appeals, which recently sided with the woman and ordered the IC to revisit its finding, paving the way for her to potentially receive death benefits.
With the victory, attorney Bob McClelland said: “This decision opens the door to the definition of family member. With modern day families, a family member is more than just someone’s wife, children, or blood relatives. Now, death benefits will be a possibility for a wider range of family members who actually depended on the income of a deceased worker.”
Facts of the Case
Amanda Carpenter was engaged to be married to Christopher McDonald at the time of his death in 2019. Christopher was employed by J&J Schlaegel, Inc., a construction company in Urbana, Ohio when he died in a trench collapse accident.
The couple had been together for eleven years. They had two minor children together, owned property together, were jointly listed on financial accounts, and each held life insurance policies in which the other was named as the sole beneficiary. Christopher provided primary financial support for Amanda and the couple’s children.
The commission ordered death benefits to be paid to the two minor children, but it denied benefits for Amanda, who then pleaded her case before the 10th District Court of Appeals.
After Christopher’s death, BWC approved workers’ compensation death benefits for the two minor children, but denied Amanda’s request for death benefits. Amanda appealed the decision but at a hearing, it was determined that Amanda was not entitled to death benefits, because she was not a “surviving spouse” or “member of the family” under Ohio workers’ compensation law.
Amanda appealed again, and at a second hearing, it was found that Amanda was, in fact, entitled to death benefits. The reason cited was that the specific facts of the case must be considered.
The BWC administrator filed yet another appeal, and the IC nullified the previous finding in favor of Amanda. The commission ordered medical, hospital, and funeral expenses paid. It also ordered death benefits to be paid to the two minor children. But it denied benefits for Amanda, who then pleaded her case before the 10th District Court of Appeals.
The Court’s Decision
At issue in the case is whether Amanda Carpenter was a dependent of Christopher McDonald and therefore entitled to BWC death benefits. Courts have not previously weighed in on this issue as it applies to an unmarried person in a relationship with a deceased employee, and there is additionally some ambiguity in the way the Ohio law on this matter is written.
The law states that:
“…the question of dependency, in whole or in part, shall be determined in accordance with the facts in each particular case existing at the time of the injury resulting in the death of such employee, but no person shall be considered as dependent unless such person is a member of the family of the deceased employee, or bears to the deceased employee the relation of surviving spouse, lineal descendent, ancestor, or brother or sister.”
According to the court, the commission “failed to properly consider whether Carpenter established she was a dependent as a member of the family under the particular facts of this case.” The court, it should be noted, did not say that Amanda is, in fact, a dependent family member. But it did point out that the statute, while ambiguous, expressly provides a liberal construction “in favor of employees and the dependents of deceased employees.”
Based on the explicit instruction for a case-by-case factual analysis, as well as the liberal construction in Amanda’s favor allowable by law, the court sent the case back to the IC and ordered it to reconsider whether Amanda meets the definition of family member and if so, the extent of her dependency. It also ordered the IC, in making this determination, to consider evidence such as the length of the couple’s relationship, their financial interdependence, the fact that Amanda was listed as Christopher’s fiancée on his death certificate, and other relevant details.
We Can Help You Appeal a Denied Workers’ Compensation Claim
Injured Ohio workers are entitled to a lost wage benefit in an amount equal to two-thirds of their average weekly wage. In the case of a death benefit, that weekly wage can instead be paid to certain survivors who were dependent on the employee’s income while they were alive.
As this case shows, a denial of benefits isn’t always the end of the story. Sometimes, it is necessary to appeal a claim at multiple levels. Appeals go through three stages within the Industrial Commission. After that, if the claimant is not satisfied, they can take their appeal outside the IC to a state court.
It is your right to have an Ohio workers’ compensation lawyer present at an appeals hearing. If you plan on appealing a decision, you should contact Graham & Graham right away so you don’t miss important filing deadlines.