Workers' Compensation

Missouri: Dependent Awarded Life-time Comp Benefits After His Father’s Cocaine-related Death

Agnew sustained catastrophic injuries when he was 22 years old after he fell  from a roof in 1999.  He sustained T9 paraplegia and required multiple spinal surgeries and psychiatric admissions. He received multiple treatment involving more than $2.2 million in care.  In 2008 he was found dead in a Wal-mart parking lot at 3 a.m.  from acute intoxication with difluorethane and cocaine. Agnew v AALCO Wrecking Co., 2014 MO WCLR Lexis 133 (Lexis Advance), 2014 MO WCLR Lexis 133 ( (Nov. 21, 2014). The case involved a fight whether his son and wife could receive further dependency benefits.

The Commission affirmed an award of benefits based on former Missouri law that allowed a dependent to continue to receive life-time benefits when a worker who was totally disabled died from unrelated causes. Schoemehl v Treasurer of the State of Missouri, 217 S.W.3d 900 (Lexis Advance), 217 S.W.3d 900 ( (Mo. banc 2007). That rule no longer applied for new injuries after June 26, 2008, but that left numerous pending cases, including Agnew, subject to the former rule. Claimant’s widow married him several years after the accident was not a dependent at the time of the accident and not entitled to benefits.

AALCO asserted a statutory ban on  benefits for death more than 300 weeks after an accident barred recovery because claimant died more than 500 weeks after the accident. Section 287.020.4 (Lexis Advance), 287.020.4 ( indicates “when (death is)mentioned as a basis for the right to compensation means only death resulting from such violence and its resultant effects occurring within three hundred weeks after the accident; except that in cases of occupational disease, the limitation of three hundred weeks shall not be applicable.”

Agnew held the 300-week defense did not apply in Schoemehl cases. Under the legal fiction of Schoemehl ,the payments are not survivor or burial benefits but PTD benefits because a young dependent child is now regarded as the employee. 

Agnew  construed Schoemehl to require the dependent to prove that the death was unrelated to the accident. In Schoemehl the parties stipulated to the cause of death as unrelated. This placed the employer in an odd position to argue that the work-related accident caused so much unrelenting pain that claimant sought cocaine for pain relief and killed himself. The dependent also argued that the claimant had a long-standing drug problem to show the death was unrelated. What may have been a pivotal piece of evidence (a hand written note from the deceased) was disregarded although admitted into evidence.  

The 30 page opinion is a textbook example of psychosocial difficulties associated with catastrophic cases such as failed back surgeries, involuntary psychiatric admissions and poly-substance abuse. The Commission denied the request for sanctions for a frivolous defense.  Among other defenses, the employer argued that claimant was not totally disabled. 

Source: Martin Klug, Huck, Howe & Tobin. Read Martin Klug’s Mo. Workers’ Comp Alerts.

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