Easley v. TLC Companies – Defining “Widow” for Workers’ Compensation

In North Carolina, workers’ compensation death benefits may be paid to the total dependents of an employee or next-of-kin, whichever is applicable.
Death benefits cover funeral expenses, plus two-thirds of employee’s average weekly wages, payable for up to 500 weeks, unless dependent is a spouse unable to support himself or herself due to physical or mental disability or a child who is under 18.

However, determining who is eligible to collect these death benefits is not always a straightforward task. If the individual is married, typically those benefits would go to the surviving spouse. However, if the pair is estranged – but still married – there could be a valid dispute as to entitlement.

In the recent North Carolina Court of Appeals case of Easley v. TLC Companies, the question arose of what constitutes a widow?

There was no dispute claimant was married to decedent at the time of his death. There was also no dispute that he died after a work-related automobile accident, and thus workers’ compensation death benefits were in order. But should claimant be the one to receive those benefits, or decedent’s minor son?

In this case, the appellate court panel decided it should be decedent’s son.

This is one example of how workers’ compensation cases often intersect with various other areas of law. In this case, elements of family law were incorporated into the decision.

According to court records, the couple married in 2003 and lived together in Salisbury, about an hour outside of Charlotte. They resided with decedent’s minor son. Each had children from previous relationships, but had no children together.

Six years after they married, the wife moved out of the family home and in with her daughter. She would later say she left because her husband told her he did not love her anymore, though she still loved him and had wanted to stay. The son later told the court he believed the separation was mutual.

In either case, the pair never legally separated or divorced. Still, wife did not seek financial support from the husband, and he never offered it. They also did not live together at any point after she moved out, and in fact had not spoken for a year prior to his death.

It should be noted that through the duration of their marriage, wife suffered mental illness related to bipolar disorder, which she was diagnosed with after they married. She suffered both suicide and homicidal thoughts, and at times confessed to thoughts of killing her husband. On occasion, she said she heard voices, and sometimes, those voices urged her to harm her husband.

Three years after she moved out of the home, her husband was killed in a work-related car accident while working as a truck driver.

She filed for workers’ compensation death benefits. However, the industrial commission determined she did not meet the definition of “widow” under the law. Although she was technically married to him, she did not live with him, was not financially dependent on him and hadn’t even spoken to him in the year before he died. It was not a situation in which husband abandoned wife, the commission determined. He did not have a drinking problem. He was not physically abusive. Based on all of this, the commission ruled there was not “just cause” for her to be living separately from her husband, and she wasn’t financially dependent on him anyway. Therefore, the commission awarded benefits to his minor son.

She appealed.

The appellate court affirmed, delving into family law case law to define terms like “abandonment and desertion,” “dependent” and “justifiable cause” in the context of leaving one’s spouse.

It is the minor son who will receive decedent’s workers’ compensation death benefits.

If you have been injured at work, contact the Lee Law Offices at 800-887-1965.

Additional Resources:
Easley v. TLC Companies, Aug. 4, 2015, North Carolina Court of Appeals

More Blog Entries:
Ellis v. Key City Furniture – Denial of Disability Claim, Aug. 22, 2015, Charlotte Workers’ Compensation Attorney Blog

Contact Information