Dependents Allowed Workers' Compensation Benefits
Settlement Under NJSA 34:15-20 (Section 20)
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 claims for benefits as a result of a worker's 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. In 1984 his family physician treated him for a chronic cough, diagnosed pulmonary fibrosis, and indicated that he was disabled.
SECTION 20 SETTLEMENT
In January 1984, the worker settled his pending lifetime claim under N.J.S.A. 34:15-20 for $36,000.00, 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 three years following the settlement, the petitioner died.
UNILATERAL WAIVER OF DEPENDENCY CLAIM PROHIBITED
The cause of death on the death certificate was lung cancer and pneumoconiosis. His wife filed a workers' compensation claim for dependency benefits. Following most jurisdictions, the Court held that there could NOT be a unilateral waiver by a worker of potential future dependency benefits. Kibble v. WEEKS DREDGING & CONST., 735 A. 2d 1142 - NJ: Supreme Court 1999.
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.
WAIVER REQUIRES RELEASE BY DEPENDENTS
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 ensure 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 the injured worker will be living at the time of his death, 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 injured worker's death.
The author, Jon L. Gelman, practices law in Wayne, NJ. He is the author of NJ Workers’ Compensation Law (Thomson-Reuters) and co-author of the national treatise Modern Workers’ Compensation Law (Thomson-Reuters). For over five decades, the Law Offices of Jon L Gelman 1.973.696.7900 firstname.lastname@example.org have represented injured workers and their families who have suffered occupational accidents and illnesses.
Recommended Citation: Gelman, Jon L., Dependents Allowed Workers' Compensation Benefits, www.gelmans.com (1999),
© 1999-2023 Jon L Gelman. All rights reserved.
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