New York’s highest court ruled Thursday that the estate of a deceased injured worker with no dependents, who died from causes unrelated to his work injury, is entitled only to the permanent disability benefits he would have received while alive, plus reasonable burial expenses.
The Court of Appeals, in a 6-1 decision, rejected an argument by the estate of Norman Youngjohn that 2009 amendments to the state Workers’ Compensation Law required Berry Plastics Corp. to pay all of Youngjohn’s schedule loss of use award — totaling $206,352.46 — as a lump sum.
“If the legislature intends for a claimant’s estate to recover the full value of an SLU award under the circumstances presented here, the Workers’ Compensation Law must be amended to so provide,” the court said, affirming a decision by the Appellate Division.
Youngjohn injured his right shoulder and left elbow in December 2014 when he slipped on ice and fell in Berry Plastics’ parking lot. He filed a workers’ compensation claim and received temporary disability benefits. In September 2016, he notified the Workers’ Compensation Board that his injuries were permanent and applied for permanent partial disability benefits.
Youngjohn suffered a fatal heart attack in March 2017, before his claim was resolved. He left behind no surviving spouse or dependents, but did have two adult children.
The estate and Berry Plastics’ insurer stipulated that Youngjohn had a 55% schedule loss of use to his left arm and a 45% SLU to his right arm with 23 weeks of “protracted healing.” All told, that amounted to 335.8 weeks of benefits.
An SLU award is a form of permanent partial disability benefits that is paid for injuries to body parts that are specifically designated in the New York Workers’ Compensation Law.
The estate contended that because of 2009 changes to the Workers’ Compensation Law, the entire amount of the SLU award accrued at the time of Youngjohn’s death. A workers’ compensation judge agreed and awarded lifetime benefits, less any amount already paid.
Berry Plastics’ insurer appealed to the Workers’ Compensation Board, arguing that Workers’ Compensation Law Section 15(4)(d) entitled the estate only to reasonable burial expenses. The board agreed and modified the judge’s decision.
The estate appealed to the Appellate Division, which led to another modified decision. An appellate panel found that the board had mostly made the right call, but also awarded the amount that would have been periodically due between the date of the injury to the date of Youngjohn’s death.
The Court of Appeals noted that historically, SLU awards were paid every two weeks unless a lump sum award was deemed advisable “in the interests of justice.” In 2009, the legislature modified the law to allow all awards to be paid in lump sums at the claimant’s request. If the claimant does not elect to receive a lump sum, the benefits accrue over time in two-week increments.
The legislature, however, did not modify Section 15(4)(d), which limits SLU awards to the amount required for reasonable burial expenses if the claimant has no dependents. If there are dependents, the law requires payment of the entire SLU to those survivors.
Youngjohn’s estate argued that the statute “implicitly” provides that SLU awards are payable in a lump sum, even if the claimant dies before making an election, because under the new statutory scheme those benefits “accrue” as soon as they are awarded.
The Court of Appeals said in order to accept that argument, it would have to overlook the fact that the legislature did not repeal Section 15(4)(d).
“The legislature has unmistakably provided a claimant’s estate with only a limited right to a discrete portion of the remaining SLU award upon the claimant’s death if the claimant has no qualifying survivors,” the opinion says.
The Court of Appeals affirmed the Appellate Divisions ruling.
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