An appeals court in Alabama has ruled in a case of first impression in our state that the workers’ compensation law cannot provide death benefits to the family of a Mexican worker killed in an accident in Alabama. The result in the case was reached because the family resided in Mexico even though the worker was killed in Alabama. The Alabama Court of Civil Appeals ruled that dependents living outside the United States can’t collect death benefits under the Alabama Worker’s Compensation Act, a law written in 1919. Greg Davis, a lawyer for the worker’s family, says the Legislature needs to change the law to reflect Alabama’s modern economy, with not only Hispanic workers but employees from many countries at foreign-owned factories in Alabama. Greg believes, “it’s definitely time for change.”
Luis Martinez Silva was killed on September 12, 2003, when he fell 30 feet from scaffolding at a construction project in Rockford, Alabama. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited two companies for not erecting the scaffolding properly and not training workers. The insurance company for Silva’s employer filed suit to determine how to handle death benefits under Alabama’s workers’ compensation law. Silva had entered the country legally, but his visa had expired by the time of his death. That was not an issue in the case because Alabama’s workers’ compensation law does not differentiate, according to Greg.
The appeals court ruled that Silva’s wife and their two children are not entitled to death benefits because state law says benefits shall only be paid to dependents who lived in the United States at the time of the employee’s death. Silva’s family lives near Mexico City. Silva’s family argued that Alabama’s law violates the equal protection and due-process guarantees of the United States Constitution. But the Court of Civil Appeals said the dependents can’t invoke those constitutional guarantees because they are not citizens or resident aliens of the United States.
The appeals court noted that courts in several other states have wrestled with this issue and most, including Georgia, have upheld the power of the state legislatures to distinguish between resident alien beneficiaries and nonresident alien beneficiaries in workers’ compensation cases. If Silva’s family had won, they would have received about two-thirds of his weekly salary until the children were grown, with the amount exceeding $100,000. Fortunately, Silva’s family will not go without compensation. They sued the primary contractor on the construction job, Pemberton Inc., and a jury awarded a $3.2 million verdict. Greg says that case was subsequently settled for a lesser amount.
Greg hasn’t made a decision on whether to appeal the worker’s compensation claim to the Alabama Supreme Court. But he did say, “it’s clear the workers’ compensation law makes it cheaper for a company if a worker with a foreign family dies on the job rather than getting seriously injured because injured workers get compensated until they recover from their injuries.” It appears that’s very true under the current law.
Source: Associated Press
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