The NJ Supreme Court confirmed that dependents have a separate claim and may file for benefits if the injured worker dies of a work-related disease. In allowing dependents to file their own claims for benefits as a result of a workers' death, the Court confirmed the liberal intent of the law.
A worker was employed by a dredging and construction company from 1980 through 1984 as a welder/torch cutter. He had worked for other employers in the same capacity from the mid-1950s until 1980. In 1977 a chest x-ray revealed that he was suffering from pneumoconiosis. During 1984 his family physician treated him for a chronic cough, diagnosed pulmonary fibrosis, and indicated that he was totally disabled.
In January 1984, the worker settled his pending lifetime claim pursuant to N.J.S.A. 34:15-20 for $36,000.00, which was a lump sum payment. The pre-printed settlement form drafted by the Division of Workers' Compensation stated that the settlement "has the effect of a dismissal with prejudice, being final as to all right[s] and benefits of the petitioner and the petitioner's dependents and is a complete and absolute surrender and release of all their rights arising out of this/these claims." About 3 years following the settlement the petitioner died.
The cause of death on the death certificate was lung cancer and pneumoconiosis. His wife filed a workers' compensation claim for dependency benefits. Following the majority of jurisdictions, the Court held that there can NOT be a unilateral waiver by a worker of potential future dependency benefits. Kibble v. Weeks Dredging & Construction Co., 99WL591414.
In resolving a claim under N.J.S.A. 34:15-20 of the Workers' Compensation Act, (Section 20) an injured worker may not unilaterally waive his or her dependent's rights to future dependency benefits. The rights of dependents to compensation are independent and separate rights flowing to them from the Act itself.
If an injured worker unilaterally enters into a settlement or release, explicitly waiving the rights of future dependents, that settlement or release is not enforceable. A release or settlement of future dependency rights can only be made with the informed consent of all dependents.
The Division of Workers' Compensation was directed by the New Jersey Supreme Court to establish procedures to insure that the spouse, other adult dependents and any minor dependents join in the waiver of future dependency claims where the parties intend a waiver of claims for dependency benefits. Since it is impossible to determine what dependents of the injured worker will be living at the time of his death, the use of the Section 20 as a mechanism to release or settle future dependency claims is impractical. It appears that the only appropriate use of a Section 20 settlement is to resolve questionable dependency claims after the death of the injured worker.