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Death in the Workplace

Under California's Workers' Compensation Act, employers are liable for workers' death benefits only for employees injured in the course of employment. Cal. Lab. Code § 3600. The death benefit is payable in addition to any other benefits provided for under the Workers' Compensation Law, such as accrued and unpaid disability compensation. An employer must pay the full death benefit even if the deceased employee was suffering from a non-industrial, pre-existing disease,or if they sustained an injury that caused or hastened death. Pacific Gas & Elec. Co. v. I.A.C., 56 Cal. 2d 219 (1961). In addition to the death benefit, the employer is liable for the employee's reasonable burial expenses when an industrial injury results in death. Cal. Lab. Code § 4601.

In order for dependents to receive death benefits on behalf of alleged dependents, they must file an application for collection and have a hearing held before a workers' compensation judge within one year after the date of death and within 240 weeks from the date of injury. Cal. Lab. Code § 5406. Both of these time requirements must be satisfied. In cases involving the death of asbestos workers from asbestosis, however, the statute of limitations is one year from the date of death only. Cal. Lab. Code § 5406.5.

Employees are any workers under a contract of hire with the employer other than independent contractors. Generally, in workplace injuries or death, the presumption is in favor of employee status, and the burden is on the party seeking to avoid liability to prove independent contractor status. The Legislature has specifically mandated that the statutes be liberally interpreted in favor of coverage for employees injured in the course of employment. If death occurs while the decedent was on the job, the right to sue may change. If an employee elects to take workmen's compensation, he or she does not have a right to sue the employer for injuries in the workplace. Cal. Lab. Code § 3601. The employee is afforded relatively swift and certain payment of benefits to cure or relieve the effects of industrial injury without having to prove fault, but, in exchange, gives up the wider range of damages potentially available in tort.

If a person's death on the job was due to the negligent actions of a third party, however, California allows dependents to pursue a wrongful death suit against the third party, regardless of whether the decedent elected for workmen's compensation through his or her employer. Cal. Lab. Code § 3601.

 


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