Okla. SC: Common law wife entitled to death benefits

By Jessica M. Karmasek | May 3, 2011

OKLAHOMA CITY (Legal Newsline) - The Oklahoma Supreme Court, in a ruling last month, said a common law wife's status as surviving spouse was sufficient to establish her entitlement to death benefits under the state's Workers' Compensation Act.

Christopher Allen Hyde was employed by J&C Casing Pullers & Plugging LLC as an oilfield hand. On Aug. 27, 2008, the oil well where Hyde was working blew up and left him seriously injured. He died later that day.

Soon after, on Sept. 15, 2008, Judy Hyde, the decedent's mother, filed a claim for death benefits in the Workers' Compensation Court and her son's four minor children were listed as his heirs at law. His mother filed the claim on behalf of all of the children; however, she is the legal guardian for only one of the minor children.

Then, on Nov. 26, 2008, Angela Cotton, claiming to be the decedent's common law wife, filed another claim for death benefits in the Workers' Compensation Court. On Form 3, Cotton designated herself as the personal representative and listed two of her husband's four children as heirs at law.

Between the time both filed their claims, Cotton also filed a Petition for Letters of Administration and Determination of Heirs in Lincoln County District Court, requesting she be appointed as personal representative of her husband's estate. Hyde's mother filed an objection and requested she be appointed instead.

Hyde's mother later withdrew her objection, preferring to litigate Cotton's status as her son's common law wife in the Workers' Compensation Court instead of the district court.

On Nov. 7, 2008, the district court found that Hyde and Cotton were common law married, that Cotton was his surviving spouse, and that the decedent had four children. Cotton and the children were all determined to be heirs at law. The district court appointed Hyde's mother and Cotton as co-administrators of the decedent's estate.

Cotton later filed a motion for summary judgment and on Nov. 18, 2009, the workers' compensation judge heard arguments. On Feb. 3, 2010, he granted Cotton's motion. Hyde's employer and his mother appealed to the three-judge panel.

On appeal, they argued that summary judgment in workers' compensation proceedings is not authorized by the rules of the Workers' Compensation court.

The three-judge panel affirmed the trial tribunal's decision by order on May 13, 2010. Both Hyde's employer and mother filed separate appeals with the state's high court, which were consolidated.

The Court, in its ruling April 19, said the panel erred in affirming the trial tribunal's decision to grant summary judgment.

Summary judgment, it said, is not proper in workers' compensation proceedings.

"While the trial tribunal reached the correct result, it used an erroneous procedure to do so," the Court wrote.

Cotton, it said, should have filed a Form 9 and attached the probate order from the district court to establish that the issue of marriage had been decided.

"Despite the fact that Employer was not a party to the probate proceedings, it was in privity with Mother. The adjudication of Wife's status as spouse was binding against both Employer and the Workers' Compensation Court," the Court wrote.

"Finally, (Cotton's) status as surviving spouse is sufficient to establish her entitlement to death benefits under the Workers' Compensation Act. Accordingly, the order of the three-judge panel is vacated, and the cause is remanded to the Workers' Compensation Court for an award consistent with this opinion."

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by e-mail at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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