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N.Y. comp death benefits can't discount factors not related to work

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An employer cannot apportion a workers compensation death benefit by discounting for a non-work-related illness that contributed to the death, New York's highest level court ruled Tuesday.

While the law may be harsh for employers, it's up to them to seek legislative changes and not a court remedy, New York State Court of Appeals said in its opinion In the Matter of Gaudenzia Hroncich vs. Con Edison et al.

At issue in the case was whether New York's workers comp law requires apportionment of death benefits between work-related and non-work-related causes of death when determining benefit awards.

The matter involved the death of Antonio Hroncich, who was diagnosed with asbestosis and a related disease resulting from working as a plumber's helper and mechanic for the Consolidated Edison Co. of N.Y. Inc. from 1958 until retiring in 1993. The New York State Workers' Compensation Board subsequently classified Mr. Hroncich as permanently partially disabled and awarded him $222 in weekly benefits, according to court documents.

In 1999, Mr. Hroncich was diagnosed with thyroid cancer unrelated to his Con Ed. work, and the cancer eventually progressed to his lungs. He died in 2007 and his widow sought workers comp death benefits, court records show. But the employer contested the claim.

A doctor who served as an expert witness for the claimant testified that Mr. Hroncich's thyroid cancer likely triggered his death earlier than it might have otherwise because the pre-existing occupational diseases compromised his lungs.

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Con Ed argued that Mr. Hroncich's asbestosis and related disease did not play a role in his death. The self-insured employer also argued that any workers comp award “should recognize the overwhelming role of the non-work-related cause of Hroncich's death; namely, thyroid cancer,” the court's opinion shows.

The employer urged that a reduced award was proper because the contribution of the work-related pulmonary disease was minimal and speculative.

But in 2009, a workers comp judge ruled the death was causally related to his occupational lung disease and that “apportionment is not available between work-related and non-work-related causes of death” when determining death benefits.

The workers compensation board affirmed the work comp judge's decision in 2009, as did an appellate court in 2012. The appellate court said that “inasmuch as the record concededly contains substantial evidence supporting the Board's determination that decedent's occupational illness contributed to his death, claimant is entitled to death benefits without apportionment.”

On appeal to New York's highest court, Con Ed argued that absent apportionment, a deceased employee's survivors receive a “windfall” at the employer's expense, which is contrary to the fundamental principle of workers comp.

But on Tuesday the high court disagreed.

It found that “the legislature made employers joint-and-several insurers of their injured employees' lives” and death benefits compensate “for a life lost at least partly because of work-related injury or disease.”

“To the extent (the law) is thereby unduly harsh on employers, Con Ed's plea for redress is properly made to the legislature, not the courts,” the majority's opinion ruled.

On Tuesday the high court affirmed the appellate court's 2012 finding.