Court hears case about estate collecting comp benefits

By Steve Korris | May 1, 2009





CHARLESTON – When a worker with no spouse or dependents dies in a job accident, the worker's estate should collect workers' compensation benefits, Mark French of Charleston told the Supreme Court of Appeals.

French asked the Justices on April 29 to reverse Logan Circuit Judge Eric O'Briant, who ruled that the estate of Andrew Murphy could not collect benefits.

Murphy drowned in a mud pit in 2005 while working for S.W. Jack Drilling Company.

His mother Evelyn "Peach" Murphy, as administrator of his estate, applied to workers' comp insurer BrickStreet Mutual for benefits.

BrickStreet denied benefits, and O'Briant sided with the insurer.

O'Briant relied on a Supreme Court opinion from 2006, Savilla v. Speedway, denying benefits to brothers and sisters of a woman who died in a job accident.

At oral arguments on Murphy's case, the Justices acted eager to erase Savilla.

Justice Robin Davis, who dissented from the Savilla opinion, asked French if the Court should reverse it.

French didn't answer directly, so Justice Menis Ketchum repeated the question.

French said the Court should clarify or expand Savilla.

"Why can't you just say yes?" Ketchum asked.

"Say yes," Davis said. "I'll help you out there.

"It has created mass confusion in the lower courts."

For S.W. Jack Drilling, Thomas Flaherty of Charleston said the trial court followed the law and the Savilla decision.

"Workers' compensation is a need based system," Flaherty said.

He said Murphy wanted to overrule a long line of decisions holding that the Court does not sit as a super legislature.

He said Murphy would apply wrongful death law, which allows brothers and sisters to recover.

"It comes down to whether we want to legislate," Ketchum said.

Justice Margaret Workman said the Court has a duty to see if legislation is constitutional.

Flaherty said if wrongful death beneficiaries collect workers' compensation, benefits would spread to people who don't need them.

French said the case raised a public policy issue because employers would assign dangerous tasks to workers without spouses or dependents.

"Now you are crossing a line to criminal culpability," Chief Justice Brent Benjamin said.

He said it wouldn't happen except maybe in movies.

The Justices took it under advisement.

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