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The workers' compensation act is remedial in nature and is to be liberally construed in favor of the injured employee. La. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 23:1031.1(A), grants a dependent of an employee who dies from an occupational disease the same recovery rights as if the employee received personal injury by accident arising out of and in the course of his employment. Accordingly, to limit death benefit recovery to only those cases in which an employee is actually killed in a work-related accident would be to ignore the clear language of § 23:1031.1(A).
The widow, Elizabeth Richards, filed a disputed claim for compensation with the Office of Worker's Compensation in which she sought death benefits pursuant to La. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 23:1231 claiming that her husband's illness and death were work related. Respondent employer, St. Bernard Parish Government, filed a partial motion for summary judgment alleging that any death benefits could not include indemnity benefits because the deceased was retired and earning no wages at the time of death. The Worker's Compensation Judge granted respondent's partial motion for summary judgment finding that the widow was not entitled to any wage related benefits under the act, and that the only benefits to which the widow was entitled were reasonable funeral expenses. The widow sought review of the judgment.
Under the circumstances, was the widow only entitled to reasonable funeral expenses?
The court reversed the decision, finding that it was apparent that the legislature failed to properly account for workers who died as a result of long latency occupational diseases. There was nothing in § 23:1231 that prevented a dependent from receiving a death benefit on the account of an employee who was also retirement eligible at the time of death. It was significant that the legislature did not prescribe any type of death benefit offset when pension benefits were available or being received as it did with total disability benefits.