The highest court of New York has ruled: the state’s Workers’ Compensation Law does not demand apportionment of death benefits between work-related and non-work related causes of death. Simply put, a deceased employee’s survivors may be entitled to the full amount of death benefits, even if the death wasn’t solely caused by the work-related injury.
The underlying case involved the death of Antonio Hroncich, who was a plumber’s helper and mechanic for ConEd for 35 years. At the time of his retirement in 1993, Hroncich was diagnosed with asbestos and asbestos-related lung disease that resulted from his employment. He was classified by the Workers’ Compensation Board as permanently partially disabled and began receiving compensation checks of approximately $222 per week.
In 1999, Hroncich was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, unrelated to his employment at ConEd. The cancer eventually progressed to his lungs and he died in September 2007. His widow applied for death benefits from ConEd, who contested the claim.
An expert medical witness testified on behalf of the widow that Hroncich died of respiratory failure and that if his lungs hadn’t been already compromised by the work-related pulmonary disease, he probably would have lived longer. The physician noted that in his opinion, Hroncich’s death was 80% attributable to the cancer and 20% attributable to the work-related pulmonary disease.
ConEd argued that the death benefits should thus be apportioned since Hroncich’s death was overwhelmingly attributable to non-work related causes.
The workers’ compensation judge disagreed, ruling that Hroncich’s death was causally related to his occupational disease and that apportionment was not available.
This ruling was affirmed on appeal to the Workers’ Compensation Board and in appellate court. ConEd appealed to the New York Court of Appeal, the highest court in the state, arguing that an employee’s survivors would improperly receive a “windfall” at the expense of the employer if apportionment between the work-related and non-work related injury didn’t occur.
But the New York Court of Appel upheld the workers’ compensation judge and lower court’s rulings. It pointed out that “there is no language in the Workers’ Compensation Law to suggest that the Board should apportion death benefits to work-related and non-work-related causes when fashioning an award….the death benefit isn’t about replacing lost wages but rather compensates for a life lost at least partly because of work-related injury or disease.”
The Court went on to note that to the extent that the decision seemed unduly harsh to employers, it is the legislature that must resolve any perceived unfairness, not the courts.
If you have any questions regarding death benefits arising from a workers’ compensation injury or illness, speak to an experienced Albany workers’ compensation lawyer. Contact Paul Giannetti today at (866) 868-2960 or contact me online.