Hroncich v. ConEd - NY State Court of Appeals rules workers' comp death benefits cannot be apportioned if death was only slightly due to work-related injury or illness
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There has been a long-standing rule in New York State that death claims in workers’ compensation cases are not eligible to be apportioned. This means that when an employee dies after having been awarded workers’ compensation due to an injury that occurred on the job, his/her family will be entitled to all of the employee’s workers’ comp death benefits, even if his/her death was mostly due to causes unrelated to work.

Recently, a case of this nature was brought to court between the family of Antonio Hroncich and Con Edison. After losing the case before the New York Workers’ Compensation Board, Con Edison took to the New York Court of Appeals, the highest court in the state. Con Edison lost their case once again, as the NY Court of Appeals upheld the current rule prohibiting the apportionment of workers’ comp death benefits. However, as much as they didn’t rule in favor of ConEd, they concluded that the current rules are unnecessarily harsh on employers, and expressed that legislature should right that wrong (not the courts).

The case between the Hroncich Family and Con Edison was over the death of Antonio Hroncich, who died in September 2007 when his thyroid cancer (diagnosed in 1999) progressed to his lungs. Hroncich worked for ConEd for 35 years, and retired in 1993 after being diagnosed with asbestos and asbestos-related lung disease as a result of his job. The Workers’ Compensation Board classified Hroncich as permanently partially disabled, and he received workers’ comp checks for approx. $222/week from that time.

After Hroncich’s death, his widow applied for workers’ comp death benefits from ConEd, but they contested her claim, arguing that Hroncich’s death was almost entirely a result of non-work related causes. During the trial, the plaintiff’s attorney brought in an expert medical witness, who testified that Hroncich would have likely lived longer if lungs hadn’t been compromised by his work-related illness. Ultimately, Hroncich died of respiratory failure as a complication of his cancer. The physician explained that, in his opinion, 80% of Hroncich’s death was caused by the cancer, but 20% was caused by the pulmonary disease he developed from his employment.

ConEd contested that they should not have to pay the entirety of Hroncich’s workers’ comp death benefits, since so much of his death was attributed to non-work related causes, but the workers’ compensation judge ruled against them. They determined that Hroncich’s death was causally related to the disease he contracted at work, and as such it was inappropriate to apportion his workers’ comp death benefits.

Once they lost the case in front of the NY Workers’ Compensation Board, ConEd appealed the ruling to the NY Court of Appeals. ConEd insisted that awarding the survivors of an employee the entirety of said employee’s death benefits, when the death was predominantly caused by non-work related circumstances, would be improperly awarding them a “windfall” that unfairly penalizes the employer.

The NY Court of Appeals decided that, “there is no language in the Workers’ Compensation Law to suggest that the Board should apportion death benefits to work-related and non-worked-related causes when fashioning an award . . . the death benefit isn’t about replacing lost wages but rather compensates for a life lost partly because of work-related injury or disease.”

Claims of this nature are frequent; there are currently tens of thousands of old claims for chronic conditions, like asbestosis and others, that have been settled as workers’ comp claims due to permanent partial disability (or other forms of disability). Many of these claims eventually lead to workers’ comp death benefits claims, even when the cause of death has virtually nothing to do with the previous workers’ comp claim. A payout for all of these claims if the families of employees filed for workers’ comp death benefits could easily exceed $10 billion. With this in mind, the NY Court of Appeals concluded their ruling with the suggestion that legislation be drafted to protect employers from being forced into paying more than they should when previous employees pass away due to causes unrelated to their past employment.