No Lump Sum Award Owed to Property of Deceased Employee

The New York Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the estate of a deceased injured worker with no dependents who died for reasons unrelated to his industrial accident is only eligible for the permanent disability benefits he would have received while he was still alive, plus reasonable funeral expenses.

The appellate court dismissed an argument from Norman Youngjohn’s estate in a 6-0 ruling that Berry Plastics Corp. was required to pay the entire price of Youngjohn’s loss of use – a total of $ 206,352.46 – as a lump sum due to amendments to the State Employee Compensation Act of 2009.

“If the legislature intends that the estate of an applicant get back the full value of an SLU price under the circumstances described here, the Employee Compensation Act must be amended accordingly,” the court confirmed a decision of the appeals department.

Youngjohn injured his right shoulder and left elbow when he slipped on ice and fell into the Berry Plastics parking lot in December 2014. He filed an employee compensation claim and received temporary disability benefits. In September 2016, he notified the Workers’ Compensation Board that his injuries were permanent and requested permanent partial disability benefits.

Youngjohn suffered a fatal heart attack in March 2017 before his claim was cleared. He did not leave a surviving spouse or loved one, but had two grown children.

The Estate and Berry Plastics insurer stated that Youngjohn had a scheduled loss of 55% on the left arm and a 45% SLU on the right arm with 23 weeks of “protracted healing.” In total, the benefits amounted to 335.8 weeks.

An SLU award is a form of permanent partial disability benefit paid for injuries to body parts that are specifically set out in the New York Workers’ Compensation Act.

The estate claimed that due to changes to the Employee Compensation Act in 2009, the full amount of the SLU award was due at the time of Youngjohn’s death. An employee compensation judge agreed and granted lifelong benefits minus an amount already paid.

Berry Plastics’ insurer appealed to the Workers’ Compensation Board, claiming that Section 15 (4) (D) of the Workers’ Compensation Law only allowed the estate to pay reasonable funeral expenses. The board agreed to the judge’s decision and changed it.

The estate appealed to the Appeals Department, which resulted in another amended decision. An appellate panel found that the board had made the correct call for the most part, but also awarded the amount periodically due between the date of injury and the date of Youngjohn’s death.

The appeals court found that in the past, SLU rewards were paid every two weeks unless a flat rate was deemed advisable “in the interests of fairness”. In 2009, the legislature changed the law so that all premiums can be paid out at a flat rate at the request of the applicant. If the applicant does not receive a flat rate, the benefits accrue over time in two-week increments.

However, the legislature has not changed Section 15 (4) letter D, which limits the SLU premiums to the amount required for reasonable funeral expenses if the applicant has no relatives. If there are dependents, the law requires payment of the entire SLU to those survivors.

Youngjohn’s estate argued that the law “implicitly” stipulates that SLU premiums are to be paid in a lump sum, even if the applicant dies before an election, since under the new legal system these benefits “accrue” as soon as they are awarded.

The Court of Appeal stated that in order to accept this argument it had to overlook the fact that the legislature had not repealed Section 15 (4) (D).

“The legislature has clearly given an applicant’s estate only a limited right to a discrete portion of the remaining SLU price after the applicant’s death if the applicant does not have qualified survivors,” the statement said.

The appeals court upheld the appeal departments’ decision. Judge Jenny Rivera only agreed to the result of the majority decision. She said that there was no lump sum payment due to the estate only because the estate did not provide evidence that Youngjohn applied for a lump sum payment prior to his death.

“For this reason alone, the property’s claim fails,” she said.

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