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Can You File a Wrongful Death Lawsuit for a Work-Related Death?

In most cases, if you lose a spouse or parent due to third-party negligence, you can bring a wrongful death lawsuit under Georgia law to recover a wide range of damages, including the deceased relative’s lost wages, medical and burial expenses, as well as non-economic damages for their pain and suffering and your own loss of companionship.

If your loved one died as the result of a workplace accident, your legal options may be limited. Workers’ compensation provides the “exclusive” remedy for all on-the-job injuries, including those that are fatal. Since workers’ compensation is a “no-fault” system, you do not need to prove the employer was negligent; however, your damages would be limited to those death benefits mandated by the Georgia Workers’ Compensation Act (GWCA).

Mangham v. Westin Hotel Management, LP

Consider this recent wrongful death case from Atlanta. The victim worked at an area hotel. During her shift one evening, she entered a walk-in freezer. Somehow she became trapped inside the freezer and was found “in a collapsed position” and dead the next morning.

The victim’s husband sued the hotel’s ownership for wrongful death, premises liability, and negligence. The defense moved for summary judgment, alleging the victim’s death fell within the scope of the GWCA. The judge agreed and dismissed the widower’s lawsuit.

As the judge explained, workers’ compensation by design “supplants the common law” with respect to personal injury. There was no dispute the victim died “during her normal evening shift” at the hotel. Therefore, the judge concluded, the GWCA’s exclusive remedy provision bars all of the husband’s claims. This immunity also extends to other corporate entities that serve as “alter egos” for the hotel’s ownership.

How Much are Death Benefits in Georgia Workers’ Compensation Cases?

What exactly are the death benefits available to surviving spouses and children under workers’ compensation? The precise benefit amount depends on how much the deceased earned at the time of his or her death. According to the GWCA, a dependent–which may include a spouse, child, or stepchild–is entitled to two-thirds of the decedent’s “average weekly wage,” up to a maximum of $575 per week. For example, if your spouse dies due to a workplace injury and earned $600 at the time, your weekly death benefit under workers’ compensation would be $400. But if your spouse earned $900 per week, your death benefit would be $575 and not $600, as the former is the legal maximum.

For a spouse with no children, the total death benefit is limited to $230,000 (or 400 weeks). Death benefits may terminate earlier if the spouse “remarries or cohabits” with another partner. For dependent children, workers’ compensation death benefits may continue until they reach the age of 23 if they are continuously enrolled in school.

In addition, the GWCA requires an employer to pay up to $7,500 for the “reasonable expenses” related to the burial of an employee who dies on the job. If the employee left no spouse or dependents, these burial expenses are “the only compensation” legally owed by the employer. No other death benefits will be paid.