Wednesday, November 29, 2006
C.A. Throws Out Death Benefit Award to Employee’s Estate
Statute Allowing Estate to Recover Where Worker Left No Dependents Held Unconstitutional
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
A state law extending workers’ compensation death benefits to the estates of employees without dependents is unconstitutional, the Court of Appeal for this district has ruled.
Div. Three Monday threw out a $250,000 award to the estate of Bantita Rackchamroon, a 21-year-old worker at Six Flags Magic Mountain who died two years ago from injuries while inspecting the SCREAM! roller coaster before the park opened in the morning.
“[W]e hold that [Labor Code] section 4702, subdivision (a)(6)(B), is unconstitutional because the constitutional enabling provision, article XIV, section 4 of the California Constitution...does not identify estates as a class of beneficiaries entitled to workers’ compensation death benefits,” Justice Patti Kitching wrote for the court.
The panel separately upheld a $125,000 award to the state under another statute.
Kitching explained that under the 1918 constitutional amendment that established California’s first comprehensive workers’ compensation—then called workmen’s compensation—system, only workers and dependents could be beneficiaries. Laws enacted in 1919 and 1929 purported to require payment of benefits to the state in certain circumstances, but those laws were declared unconstitutional by the state high court in 1922 and 1930, respectively.
In 1972, voters approved a constitutional amendment permitting the Legislature to designate the state as a workers’ compensation beneficiary. Kitching Monday agreed with Six Flags that a similar amendment would be required before deceased workers’ estates may be designated as beneficiaries.
Sec. 4702(a)(6)(B), a 2002 law awarding a $250,000 benefit to the estate of a worker who dies of a job-related injury and leaves no dependents, is unconstitutional because it violates the clear limitations of Art. XIV, Sec. 4, the justice said. “In addition, awarding workers’ compensation death benefits to an estate conflicts with the underlying policy of the workers’ compensation scheme, which is to provide financial support to a worker and a worker’s dependents when the worker suffers job-related injury or death,” she wrote.
Kitching rejected the contention that by granting the Legislature “plenary power, unlimited by any provision of this Constitution” to create and enforce a workers’ compensation system, the Constitution permits expansion of the permissible classes of beneficiaries. Similar arguments were rejected in the 1922 and 1930 cases, which treated the word “plenary” largely as surplusage.
Estate Not ‘Dependent’
Nor can an estate be deemed a “dependent,” Kitching concluded, citing a series of laws defining the term to mean either a person who stands in a specific relationship to the deceased worker by blood or marriage, or a person who was actually dependent on the worker for support, as well as the ballot pamphlet language for the 1918 constitutional amendment.
The justice further noted that the 2002 law was passed despite the advice of the Department of Industrial Relations, which concurred with an earlier Legislative Counsel opinion that the extension of benefits to a workers’ estate would be unconstitutional.
Neil D. Schwartz of Pearlman, Borska and Wax represented Six Flags on appeal, while William J. Toppi represented the estate. Christina J. Imre of Sedgwick, Detert, Moran & Arnold argued for Zenith Insurance Company and the Association of California Insurance Companies as amici.
Amicus briefs supporting Six Flags were also filed on behalf of Republic Indemnity Company of America and the California Workers’ Compensation Institute.
The case is Six Flags, Inc. v. Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board, 06 S.O.S. 5765.
Copyright 2006, Metropolitan News Company