What Do You Think: Were Workers’ Wife, Children ‘Dependents’ in Final Award?

Frank Ferreri

Kansas City, MO (WorkersCompensation.com) – While a person’s spouse and children typically would be considered “dependents” in the everyday use of the term, a recent Missouri case showed that it’s not always an easy call in workers’ compensation law. Consider the following and see what you think.

After experiencing a work-related injury, a worker settled a claim with his employer. Due to several pre-existing injuries, the worker pursued permanent total disability benefits against the state’s second injury fund. Ultimately, Missouri’s Labor and Industrial Relations Commission awarded the worker PTD benefits.

The final award noted that the worker’s wife performed “housecleaning” activities and that the worker drove to his daughter’s school. The only other reference in the award to the worker’s family was a note that he lived with “his wife, 11-year-old daughter, and 18-year-old daughter who just started college.”

When the worker died for reasons unrelated to his work injuries, his wife and children filed a motion to substitute themselves for him for purposes of receiving PTD benefits. They claimed that because they were the worker’s wife and children at the time of his injury and death, they qualified as dependents.

The commission rejected this assertion because dependency wasn’t part of the final award. As a result, the wife and children appealed to state court.

Under Missouri law that applied to the worker’s case, when an employee with a PTD dies from causes unrelated to the work-related injury, the disability benefits are paid to the employee’s dependents for their lifetime because the surviving dependents are deemed to have the same rights as the employee.

However, a dependent’s contingent right to benefits for future determination is preserved only if dependency at the time of the injury is established and it’s part of the final award. If not, the commission can’t change the award for dependents later.

Were the wife and children able to establish that they were the worker’s “dependents”?

  1. No. The dependency status is a question of law that’s decided with the final award, so the commission correctly determined that the wife and children couldn’t be substituted for the worker after his death.
  2. Yes. The wife and children’s dependency status could have been established in the final award because there was enough supporting evidence, so the commission incorrectly determined that they weren’t entitled to the worker’s PTD benefits.

If you chose A, you agreed with the court in Lawrence v. Treasurer of the State of Missouri, No. WD83123 (Mo. Ct. App. 07/07/20). According to the court, the final award revealed “no finding that could be construed to establish” that the wife and children were the dependents at the time of the worker’s injury.

The court explained that the commission lost its authority to make findings and conclusions once the final award was issued.

“While the [wife and children] have accurately recounted a bevy of evidence … that likely would have supported a finding establishing them as dependents of [the worker] at the time of his injury, the absence from the final award of any such finding left the commission without authority to disturb the final award and substitute them as parties to the underlying claim,” the court wrote.

This feature does not provide legal advice.

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