Funeral Expense Cap Applies to N.Y. Worker’s Benefits Despite Lump Sum Option

Frank Ferreri

Albany, NY (WorkersCompensation.com) – Although New York law allowed for lump sum payment of certain workers’ compensation benefits, that didn’t mean a cap on payments upon a worker’s non-work-related death was ineffective.

Instead, in Estate of Youngjohn v. Berry, No. 12 (N.Y. 04/01/21), New York’s highest court held that the recovery of a worker’s schedule loss of use award by his estate was limited to the portion of the award that would have been due to the worker prior to his death.

Injury, Death

A worker for a plastics manufacturer experienced injuries on the job when he slipped on ice and fell in the parking lot. The worker received temporary benefits for injuries to his right shoulder and left elbow.

Later, the worker sought permanent benefits, and the manufacturer’s carrier notified the state’s Workers’ Compensation Board that the worker’s injuries were amenable to a schedule loss of use award. However, before the worker’s claim for permanent partial disability benefits resolved, the worker died of a heart attack unassociated with his work injuries.

When he died, the worker did not have a surviving spouse, minor children, or other qualifying dependents.

Following the worker’s death, his estate continued the workers’ compensation proceedings, with the estate and the carrier stipulating to the worker’s injuries. However, a dispute arose regarding whether the estate was entitled to the full value of the schedule loss of use award or only the portion of the award up to the date of the worker’s death.

Under New York workers’ compensation law, a worker’s estate is limited in recovery to “an amount not exceeding reasonable funeral expenses” when the worker was entitled to permanent partial disability benefits but died of causes unrelated to work injuries without a surviving spouse, child, or qualifying depending.

However, a provision of the law authorized lump sum payment for schedule loss of use awards, so the estate argued that the full amount of the worker’s award accrued at the time of his death and wasn’t affected by the cap for reasonable funeral expenses.

A workers’ compensation law judge sided with the estate, but New York’s Workers’ Compensation Board modified the WCLJ’s decision, determining that the schedule loss of use award payable to the estate was limited to the amount of the award capped at reasonable funeral expenses.

The estate appealed to court, and the court held that the estate was entitled to payment of the award that was due up to the date of the worker’s death plus reasonable funeral expenses. The court rejected the estate’s argument that it was entitled to full amount of the award, so the estate appealed to New York’s highest court.

Amendment, Existing Law

When New York’s legislature passed the amendments allowing for lump sum payments of schedule loss of use awards, it did not change the limits for reasonable funeral expenses, leading the court to affirm the lower court’s ruling.

The court’s analysis emphasized that while the amendments allowing for lump sum payments changed the methods for payments of schedule loss of use awards, they didn’t change the law’s cap when a worker dies under the conditions that trigger it.

“That is, if a claimant so elects, payment of a [schedule loss of use] award may be directed in a lump sum fashion,” the court wrote. “[H]owever, in the event a claimant dies from causes unrelated to the work injury, any yet unpaid amounts that would have become periodically due after the claimant’s death are ‘payable to and for the benefit of … the estate of such deceased in an amount not exceeding reasonable funeral expenses.’”

As a result, the estate’s recovery was limited to the portion of the award that would have been due to the worker for the period prior to his death plus reasonable funeral expenses.

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