I am back after a wonderfully refreshing Thanksgiving holiday. I spent my weekend trying to catch up on the backlog of decisions sent over by the Department of Labor and I knew I would not be disappointed by the recent releases from our IAB and Hearing Officers. Notwithstanding the fact that this post is about a fatal claim and the death statute, 19 Del. Code Section 2331, I think we are all ready for a little comic relief. And props to Angela "Quickfire" Fowler for another rapid-issue opinion-- Hearing convened on November 12, 2010 and the decision was mailed November 16th.
The death statute allows for a $3500.00 funeral reimbursement in the event of a work-related death to alleviate the cost of burial and related items. Built into the statute is authorization to appeal for a greater reimbursement in that Section 2331 clearly states:"...except that any bill for reasonable funeral expenses....in an amount in excess of $3500.00 may be approved by the Industrial Accident Board". In light of this language clearly allowing that the sum of $3500.00 may not be sufficient to cover the final expenses of the dearly departed, these claims often settle between the parties for a higher amount without the need to involve the Board. But not this case.
So here is the question--
What is a "reasonable" funeral expense?
In the recent case of Ronald Harmon v. Delaware Electric Cooperative, IAB# 1317729 (November 16, 2010), the claimant's estate sought payment by the carrier of a $25,000.00 funeral bill. The first $3500.00 was tendered voluntarily and as such, the claimant's representative came to the Board seeking a check for the balance of $21,500.00. A licensed funeral director testified on behalf of the charges. She explained that she had offered the family a "package deal" and as such, there was no itemized bill for distinct charges. In describing the details of the funeral, she testified that the deceased was a "veteran of the U.S. military, associate pastor of his church and a well respected pillar of the community" --and in keeping with his standing, he enjoyed a "larger than life funeral".
The funeral included the following non-itemized charges:
• Stainless steel casket engraved with military insignia and adorned with upgraded hardware and an upgraded fiberglass vault to accept the casket
• A 6-disc video presentation for display at the funeral documenting community, family and military events
• "Expanded" color programs and prayers cards for 2000 people expected to attend the festivities
• Extensive funeral flowers to include but not limited to a $1500.00 "widow's spray" for atop the casket.
[Talk about a "package" deal-- this was Santa's entire sled]
There were some legitimate items that would allow for an increased cost over the $7500.00 that this funeral director testified was the national average funeral charge. These special costs dealt with travel from the funeral home to a church large enough to accommodate the expected number of funeral service attendees and also special cosmetology services to address the condition of the body, as there were burn marks attributable to the claimant's electrocution. However, as the Board recognized in issuing its decision, had the claimant's life insurance policy limits not dictated some level of cost-containment, the claimant's first choice for a casket was a solid bronze model costing $40,000.00. Of those costs actually incurred, there was a literal fleet of limousines hired to transport claimant's entire extended family.
The Board allowed for a total cost of $15,000.00 for the funeral under the circumstances of this case and accordingly ordered the carrier to issue a check for an additional $11,500.00. The Board declined to award "expert fees" for the time and testimony of Deborah Harris-Nock, the funeral director who commented on the issue of reasonableness given the claimant's persona within the community. The Board also recognized that the carrier's challenge to the total funeral charge was well-founded and that the carrier prevailed in part by having the charges substantially reduced.
I found this case pretty hilarious in spite of the fact of such an unfortunate accident. Talk about going home to meet Jesus...there was apparently enough limo space for Jesus, Mary, Joseph and all 12 apostles. And I did not know they made caskets costing $40,000.00. I guess one of these days I will need to give some thought to my "home-going" (as we call it at my church) and the circumstances surrounding my final repose. Since my car did not cost $40,000.00, I'm not sure I have a need to leave this earth "in style". [But please don't bury me in my Kia]
That said, we have another saying in my church-- "Absent in the body, present with the Lord." I think I will stick with that as my mantra....just for the sake of cost-efficiency, mind you. If nothing else-- my daughters will love having the extra money for a Lexus.....:>)
Irreverently yours, Cassandra Roberts
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