SURVIVING DEPENDENT SPOUSE ENTITLED TO BENEFITS WHERE INJURED EMPLOYEE DIED DURING APPEAL

General Electric Company v. Mary Ann Baggett, as surviving dependent spouse of Charles Baggett:

On October 9, 2009, the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals released this opinion wherein it affirmed the trial court’s decision to award benefits to the surviving spouse of an employee who was injured on the job in April 2001 but died during the workers’ compensation litigation process in April 2007. In April 2003, Charles Baggett sued his employer, General Electric, seeking workers’ compensation benefits for an on the job injury to his left knee. In December 2005, the trial court initially entered a judgment determining that Mr. Baggett was permanently and totally disabled as a result of the on the job injury. The employer appealed that judgment. During the appeals process, Mr. Baggett died from causes unrelated to his work injury. In that initial appeal, the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals reversed the trial court’s judgment because it found that the trial court erred by treating Mr. Baggett’s left knee injury as an injury to the body as a whole, rather than as a scheduled member injury under Alabama Code § 25-5-57(a)(3).

After Mr. Baggett’s death, Mary Ann Baggett was substituted as a party in place of Mr. Baggett. On remand to the trial court, Mrs. Baggett argued that she was entitled to workers’ compensation benefits pursuant to Alabama Code § 25-5-57(a)(5), which permits a deceased employee’s surviving spouse or dependent children to recover benefits due the employee when the amount of disability benefits due the employee has been established. The employer argued that Mrs. Baggett was not entitled to compensation benefits under § 25-5-57(a)(5). In November 2008, the trial court relied on its findings of fact made in its previous judgment and entered a new judgment determining that Mr. Baggett had sustained a total loss of the use of his left leg, a scheduled member injury. The trial court then awarded benefits that would have been due Mr. Baggett, accordingly, to Mrs. Baggett. The employer appealed, a second time, on the grounds that Mrs. Baggett did not qualify to receive benefits for her husband’s injury under § 25-5-57(a)(5) because the degree of Mr. Baggett’s injury had not been established before Mr. Baggett’s death. The employer argued that the trial court’s initial judgment establishing Mr. Baggett’s disability should not count, as it was subsequently appealed and reversed.

On review of the employer’s second appeal, the Court of Civil Appeals found that the degree of Mr. Baggett’s injury had been established within the requirements of § 25-5-57(a)(5) prior to Mr. Baggett’s death; therefore, the Court affirmed trial court’s award of workers’ compensation benefits to Mrs. Baggett for her husband’s total loss of use of his left leg. The Court of Civil Appeals noted that the trial court had entered an order establishing Mr. Baggett’s disability in December 2005, even though that judgment was later reversed. The Court then stated that § 25-5-57(a)(5) does not require that a judgment be entered and that said judgment be taken completely through the appeals process in order for an employee’s surviving spouse or dependent child to recover under § 25-5-57(a)(5). The statute simply requires that a court of competent jurisdiction consider the matter and enter a final order setting forth the extent of the injured employee’s disability.

The Court went on to explain that the reason for the