Pearland, TX (WorkersCompensation.com) – For the third time, the wife of a Pearland police officer killed by a drunk driver while on duty will go to court to prove she is entitled to his workers’ compensation benefits.
Lucy Lugo, common law wife of officer Endy Ekpanya, has already proven in court twice that she is entitled to Ekpanya’s death benefits. Now a lawsuit by the Texas Municipal League Intergovernmental Risk Pool will force her to prove her status once again.
In June 2016, Ekpanya was responding to a routine call when he was struck by a drunk driver. Clear Creek resident and former principal in the Clear Creek Independent School District Amber Willemsen, 40, was convicted of intoxication manslaughter in Ekpanya’s death.
Willemsen was out on bond on a drug charge and working as a stripper at the Ritz on Gulf Freeway when the accident happened. Officials said Willemsen had been drinking heavily at work on the night in question and struck Ekpanya while driving on the wrong side of the road on her way home from her shift at the club.
Lugo filed a claim for Ekpanya’s death benefits. In March, a benefit review officer decided on behalf of Lugo that she was Ekpanya’s common law wife and the legal beneficiary of Ekpanya.
In an appeal by the risk pool, Lugo presented as evidence that she was Ekpanya’s common law wife. Among the evidence was a funeral program listing her as Ekpanya’s wife, several letters testifying to the fact the couple lived together as husband and wife and that the couple planned to have a wedding in the future. On March 31, the Texas Department of Insurance Division of Workers’ Compensation ruled on behalf of Lugo, saying she had sufficient evidence to prove she was Ekpanya’s common law wife as defined by state law.
Texas law states that for an informal or “common law” marriage to be legally recognized, three elements must exist: That the two parties agreed to be married, that they lived together as husband and wife, and that they represented to others that they were married.
Now, risk pool officials have filed a lawsuit against Lugo in Brazoria County District Court. The risk pool is seeking a judicial determination on whether or not Lugo had “erroneously been determined to be a beneficiary of a deceased former employee of the city.”
Jennifer O’Sullivan, TMLIRP attorney and assistant manager of subrogation, told the Houston Chronicle the risk pool was suing Lugo out of fiscal responsibility.
“Because TMLIRP uses public funds to pay workers’ compensation benefits, TMLIRP owes a duty to its governmental member and to the public to responsibly administer those funds.”
Representing Lugo is Greg Hill, a former Pearland city councilman. Hill left council in May to pursue another elected seat, he said in an interview with WorkersCompensation.com.
Hill said he’s never seen a case like this, and that it appears to be all about money.
“The city has the right, even though I disagree with their decision, to file appeals against these decisions,” Hill said. “Two times there’s been overwhelming evidence that she is Endy Ekpanya’s wife, and the only way to avoid paying that benefit was for them to file this judicial review.”
The case is set to be heard by Brazoria County Judge Pat Sebesta. A date for the appeal has not yet been set.
Hill said even if the city loses, there will still be a legal fight. Lugo has filed a civil suit against the Ritz Cabaret and Amber Willemsen for damages. The Texas Municipal League, on behalf of the city of Pearland, has filed a judicial appeal in that case to be paid back for the death benefit they would pay to Lugo.
“I’ve heard from other city council members who have talked to me about not wanting to go forward with this suit,” Hill said. “But they don’t have the authority to pull back on it. It’s in the hands of the Texas Municipal League. They are doing what they feel they need to do to protect their financial interests.”
O’Sullivan did not respond to requests for comment.
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