Massachusetts Reviewing Board Affirms Award of Burial and Dependency Benefits to Deceased Employee’s Wife

In a newly released decision, the Massachusetts Department of Industrial Accidents Reviewing Board considered an appeal by the employer of an award of § 31 benefits. In the workers’ compensation appeal in Harris v. Plymouth County, the employee suffered work-related injuries to his neck and back. The self-insured employer paid § 34 total incapacity benefits to the employee until his death in October 2010, which was caused by excessive aspirin ingestion.

The employee’s wife filed a claim under § 31 for dependency benefits and § 33 for burial benefits. She was awarded § 33 benefits but was denied dependency benefits under § 31. The wife appealed, contending that since the employer failed to appeal the award of burial benefits, the causal relationship between the employee’s work-related injury and death was established. Specifically, since an award of § 33 burial benefits is proper only when an employee’s death is work-related, the wife argued that an unchallenged § 33 award establishes causation for purposes of § 31 benefits as a matter of law. Once causation is established, the only remaining issues are whether the claimant qualifies as a dependent, and the amount of the § 31 benefit award.

The administrative hearing judge agreed with the wife, concluding that the unappealed decision binds the parties with regard to all issues covered by the decision, including causation. The employer appealed to the Reviewing Board, advancing several arguments in support of allowing the parties to fully litigate the issue of causation between the employee’s injury and death for the purposes of § 31 benefits. The Reviewing Board disagreed with the employer and affirmed the decision of the administrative judge.

Pursuant to the Massachusetts Workers’ Compensation Act, § 33 benefits may only be awarded when there is a causal relationship between the employee’s injury and death, and the claimant establishes her dependency upon the employee’s earnings at the time of the injury or death. The Reviewing Board found that in failing to appeal the order, the employer indicated its acceptance of the award of burial benefits. And, since the only appeal that was filed was for § 31 benefits, the wife did not have the burden of re-establishing the elements of the § 33 claim.

In response, the employer argued that § 33 obligates payment of burial benefits in all cases in which an employee dies while receiving indemnity benefits. The Reviewing Board disagreed, explaining that to support this interpretation would be contrary to what the legislature intended, as well as inconsistent with the rest of the Workers’ Compensation Act. Accordingly, the Reviewing Board affirmed the decision awarding both § 31 dependency benefits and § 33 burial benefits.

If you have been injured while working on the job, you may be able to recover your medical expenses and lost wages by filing a claim for workers’ compensation benefits. At the Massachusetts firm of Pulgini & Norton, our workplace accident attorneys are experienced advocates for employees pursuing workers’ compensation benefits. To discuss your claim with one of our seasoned associates, contact our office at (781) 843-2200 or through our website.

More Blog Posts:

Massachusetts Appeals Court Finds for Worker Claiming Partial Incapacity Benefits, Massachusetts Workers’ Compensation Lawyer Blog, published August 12, 2015

Massachusetts Employee Has Standing to Bring Claim for Reimbursement of Benefits Paid by MassHealth and Medicare, Massachusetts Workers’ Compensation Lawyer Blog, published December 10, 2015

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