Workman’s Comp: Fighting Liability

On the topic of survivor benefits for the family of a worker killed on the job, the experts at workerscompensation.com have this to say:

The surviving spouse and children of a worker who is killed during the course of his employment are entitled to death benefits.  Each state’s statutes vary on how much the survivors are entitled to receive, and on the definition of spouse and dependents.  For example, divorced or separated, children out of wedlock, children over the age of 18, children in college, etc.

It is important to note that unlike a civil damage claim in the Court system, in Workers’ Compensation the focus is not upon grief, mental pain and suffering, or loss of companionship. The focus is upon the loss of income being produced by the deceased worker for the surviving beneficiaries.

The numbers and eligibility may vary from state to state, but the basic premise here is clear: If you die on the job, your surviving family is entitled to compensation based on loss of your income. However, in California, there is a case in which the employer is challenging the workers compensation claim of a worker killed on the job because they say her death was “personal” and not work-related.

The Talley Case: Background

In 2006, 26-year old Taneka Talley was at work when she was stabbed to death by 45-year old Tommy Joe Thompson. Taneka was a clerk at a Dollar Tree store and was stocking shelves when Thompson entered the store around 9 am and attacked her. Had he been a fellow employee, or a robber, then Dollar Tree and its insurance company would probably not be fighting so hard to deny Taneka’s 11-year old son the $250,000 settlement his grandmother is seeking. The problem is that Thompson was not robbing the place and he did not work there. He told police that he killed Taneka because she was black.

So, because of the racial motive for the murder, Dollar Tree has declared that this was a personal and not a work-related killing; therefore they are not liable for worker’s compensation benefits for the child. It is a neat argument, but does it hold water?

The Arguments

There are two strong arguments here in favor of Taneka’s son. The first involves the case itself and the second involves California state law.

Nothing Personal: It Was On the Job

Given the random nature of the crime, it is obvious that if Taneka had not been at work that day, she would be alive. It is no different from a case where an accident on the job kills a worker. Had that worker not been on the job, they would not have died. Taneka was doing her job at the time she was killed. There was no warning, it simply happened. How many construction workers die each year from personal accidents at construction sites? How many of them are denied because gravity works and sometimes heavy things dropped from above fall on people?

If Dollar Tree’s argument is that Talley’s death is an accident of timing, or an accident of race, how is that different from an accident of fire, or an accident stemming from someone’s sweaty hands and weak grip?

In a way, you could say that any accident is personal, and yet that does not stop workers comp claims from going forward and being honored. This is something that has been recognized in California’s worker’s compensation system and that may well be where the real issue here may be found.

California Workers Comp

There are many employers in California who hate the state’s workers comp system. It is seen as being too generous to workers in that it mandates workers comp benefits regardless of whether the business is at fault. According to the California Department of Industrial Relations, The workers' compensation system is based on a trade-off between employees and employers. Employees are entitled to receive prompt, effective medical treatment for on-the-job injuries no matter who was at fault and, in return, are prevented from suing their employers over those injuries.

The argument here is over what exactly constitutes an “on-the-job injury” because other another part of the law uses this language: “If you get hurt or sick because of work, your employer is required by law to pay for workers' compensation benefits.”

So which is it? Dollar Tree is using the “because of work” language while Taneka’s family is relying on no-fault principle of the law. These are the kinds of cases that generally go to court and this one is no different, but why is the company pushing this issue when it is such a public relations loser and $250,000 is really very little in the grand scheme of things for a national company?

The Bottom Line

It is the principle of the thing. The money itself is nothing and it would be paid out by the insurance company, not Dollar Tree. No, the real aim of taking this case to court is to have the judge overrule (or even better, overturn) the no-fault provisions of the California law. The insurance company, Specialty Risk Services (SRS), which has a mixed reputation at best, is doing everything it can to avoid paying this claim and by taking the issue to court and getting a favorable ruling they will have legal support to minimize workers compensation claims, which would please the companies that SRS works for.

No-fault workers compensation is there for a reason. It helps the worker get what they need to recover and it keeps the company from being sued. It also prevents an adversarial situation between the wounded worker and the company from developing, which is a good thing for everyone. As a business owner, you know that there is sometimes a fine line between doing what is right by your employees and taking financial risks with your business, but you should also know that in the end, doing right by your people will pay-off better in the end than would hiding behind your risk-management (workers comp insurance) company. Dollar Tree is going to learn that lesson as their already soiled reputation slides further into the toilet. Don’t let your business follow.