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Friday, August 23, 2019

Woman loses Workers' Comp case in Alaska Supreme Court over daughter's death

By Charmaine Little | May 29, 2018


ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Legal Newsline) – A woman whose daughter died on the job has failed to convince the Supreme Court of the State of Alaska she should receive additional compensation.

The Supreme Court upheld the decision of the Alaska Workers' Compensation Commission in the case of Marianne E. Burke, mother of Abigail E. Caudle, v. Raven Electric Inc. and Liberty Mutual Insurance Co. on May 11.

Burke, whose daughter, apprentice electrician Caudle, was electrocuted and killed while working on a job for Raven Electric, requested Workers’ Compensation death benefits two years after her death. She also asked for compensation for other injuries she alleges she sustained because of her daughter’s passing. She filed her claim with the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Board and alleged the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Act was unjust as it didn’t provide enough compensation.

"Raven Electric filed an answer saying it had paid all workers’ compensation benefits due and denying further benefits were owed. It also raised two affirmative defenses: Burke’s claim was untimely under AS 23.30.105(a), and she was not a beneficiary because she was not dependent on Caudle at the time of Caudle’s death as required by the Act. Raven Electric later petitioned the Board to dismiss Burke’s claim on those grounds," the opinion states.

The opinion states that the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Act limited Raven's liability to funeral expenses and a payment to the Second Injury Fund as Caudle was unmarried with no dependents at the time of her death.

The board disagreed with Burke and denied her argument and the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Appeals Commission backed the Board’s decision in Burke's appeal. The Commission took it a step further and demanded Burke pay the more than $11,000 in legal fees her daughter’s employer accrued.

The Supreme Court determined the Commission was just in its decision, so it confirmed the ruling but reversed the attorney’s fees judgment.

The court first challenged Burke’s argument that the exclusive remedy provision of the Act interferes with her rights. She stated that portion of the regulation blocked her due rights process as the defendant refused to offer more compensation. She stated this was an act of “deprivation of life, liberty, or property without due process of the law,” as she said she was dependent on her daughter’s financial status.

The court disagreed that the laws violated her due process right and stated she doesn’t have the right to begin with. 

“The legislature has limited the substantive rights available to nondependent family members of workers who die in work-related accidents, and the claims processing mechanism in the Act provided Burke and opportunity to challenge the constitutionality of the Act with respect to her own rights,” according to the opinion. It stated her due process rights are irrelevant.

Burke also argued the exclusive remedy blocks a lawsuit under the defective machinery act as she pointed out Raven Electric provided her daughter with incorrect and defective equipment. The court agreed with the portion of the Act that bars a suit against Raven Electric with the Defective Machinery Act argument. It stated that Caudle’s job was protected under the Act. She also claimed the refusal for more compensation violated the equal protection under the Alaska and U.S. Constitutions and her right to privacy under the state constitution, which the court disagreed.

The court also determined the Board was not incorrect in its procedural rulings when it didn’t allow her to submit an Alaska Occupational Safety and Health file into record and when it failed to grant her more time to prepare for the hearing.

The court went on to decide the Commission did err when it awarded Raven Electric its attorney’s fees against the plaintiff. It determined because Burke is a possible beneficiary of her late daughter, she was a claimant under the act. Therefore, “she is entitled to the protection afforded other claimants against having to pay attorney’s fees to Raven Electric unless her position on appeal was frivolous, unreasonable, or the appeal was taken in bad faith,” stated the opinion. The court determined her appeal was nothing of the sort.

It ultimately decided the Act does not interfere with Burke’s rights to equal protection or due process. It affirmed the Commission’s ruling that Burke was not owed the benefits, but reversed Raven Electric being awarded attorneys' fees.

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