Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Six Flags v. WCAB (Cal. Ct. App. - Nov. 27, 2006)

It's fairly rare that I talk about a worker's compensation appeal. But this one is different. Among other things, it's a more significant opinion, with a fairly wide-ranging impact, and holds that Labor Code sect. 4702(a)(6)(B) violates the California Constitutuion.

What does Labor Code sect. 4702(a)(6)(B) say, you might ask (as, indeed, I did when I first read the opinion)? Well, basically, Section 4702 in general says that when a worker dies on the job -- as Bantita Rackchamroon, a hostess at Six Flags, did when she was hit and killed by a roller coaster -- the employer has to pay the worker's family $250,000. Paragraph (a)(6)(B) further provides that when the employee has no dependents, that sum must be paid to the estate of the worker.

Seems reasonable, right? After all, maybe the worker has parents, siblings, or significant others who might need the money.

But Justice Kitching holds that this provision is unconstitutional under article XIV, section 4 of the California Constitution, which authorizes the Legislature to establish a worker's compensation regime solely to require employers to compensate "any or all of their workers for injury or disability, and their dependents for death incurred or sustained by the said workers in the course of their employment, irrespective of the fault of any party.” So by adding the estate as a beneficiary, Section 4702(a)(6)(B) violates the California Constitution.

Justice Kitching's opinion is excellent. Comprehensive, well-reasoned, and nicely articulated. Indeed, at the end of it, my principal reaction was: "It seems so obvious that this statute was unconstitutional. I wonder how many employers and/or insurers actually paid the quarter-million dollars without ever consulting an attorney and realizing that the statute was unconstitutional?"

I bet a lot did. Which meant a lot of money to the State of California -- since paying the money to the "estate" of people without dependents often, as here, resulted in some payment to the State -- and a lot of money out of the pockets of employers who weren't required to pay.

Shows the importance of having a lawyer with a broad range of knowledge, including knowing a fair piece about state constitutional law, eh?