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Tennessee Court Rules Widow’s Estate May Pursue Workers’ Compensation Benefits

Tennessee workers’ compensation law provides for death benefits in the event you are killed in a workplace accident. In cases where a deceased employee leaves a surviving spouse and one or more dependent children, Tennessee law provides the employer (or its insurance carrier) must pay a death benefit equal to two-thirds of the employee’s average weekly wages for a period of up to 400 weeks. If the employee left no surviving spouse or children, a lump sum of $20,000 is paid to his or her estate.

Death Benefits Claim Does Not Die With Spouse

As a general rule, workers’ compensation benefits paid to a surviving spouse ends when the spouse remarries or dies. But what about a workers’ compensation claim that is still pending at the time of the surviving spouse’s death? The Special Workers’ Compensation Appeal Panel of the Tennessee Supreme Court recently addressed this question.

This case involves an employee who worked for a manufacturer of cargo barges. The employee passed away in 2011. His widow filed a claim for workers’ compensation death benefits, alleging her husband’s death was the “result of a lung disease he contracted in the course of his employment.” The employer rejected the claim and the widow filed a lawsuit in Tennessee state court.

While the lawsuit was pending, the widow died of cancer. Her estate continued the workers’ compensation case. The employer argued the claim died with the widow. The trial judge agreed and entered summary judgment for the employer.

On appeal, the workers’ compensation panel reversed in favor of the widow’s estate. The panel rejected the employer’s argument that a claim for “unpaid, but accrued benefits” could not be paid to the widow’s estate. While death benefits cannot pass by inheritance, the panel said the whole point of the workers’ compensation law was to “justly compensate” a family for the loss of a loved one due to a workplace accident. That includes compensating the widow for the time elapsed between her husband’s death and her own.

The employer’s view was “neither just, nor logical, nor fair,” according to the panel, because it would basically punish a surviving spouse who “fails to live long enough to survive delays inherent in the judicial process.”

The panel did not rule on the merits of the workers’ compensation claim. It merely returned the case to the lower court for further proceedings. The employer continues to contest its liability for the employee’s death.

Get Help from a Knoxville Workers’ Compensation Lawyer

The Supreme Court panel’s decision is good news for the families of loved ones who have lost their lives due to a workplace accident. Unfortunately, this case also illustrates how delays in the workers’ compensation system can affect a family’s ability to secure benefits they are lawfully entitled to. This is why it is essential to seek assistance from a qualified Tennessee workers’ compensation attorney. Contact the offices of Fox, Farley, Willis & Burnette, Attorneys at Law, in Knoxville or Clinton if you need to speak with someone about your case right away.

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