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Widow entitled to death benefits 10 years after injury

sheriff's car

The widow of a sheriff’s deputy who died after surgery related to his workplace injury a decade earlier is entitled to benefits but not a lump sum payout under state law, the Kentucky Supreme Court unanimously held Thursday.

In Calloway County Sheriff’s Department v. Woodall, the court found that the lump sum payout at the time of death was time-barred but that the widow was entitled to surviving spouse income benefits.

Steven Spillman worked for the Calloway County Sherriff’s Department when he was severely injured in a motor vehicle accident in 2007. He was awarded permanent partial disability benefits, and his case was reopened in 2013, when he was awarded increased benefits for the remainder of the 425 weeks for which he was entitled.

In 2017, he underwent surgery connected to his work-related injury but developed a pulmonary embolism after the procedure and died.

Karen Woodall, his widow, sought surviving spouse income benefits and a lump sum payout for his claim pursuant to Kentucky law. Under the state’s statutes, if an injured worker’s death occurs within four years of the injury, the employee’s estate is entitled to a $50,000 lump sum payment.

An administrative law judge denied her request for benefits, ruling that they were time-barred. The Kentucky Workers Compensation Board disagreed and held that Ms. Woodall was entitled to surviving spouse income benefits but not the lump sum payout. 

The Kentucky Supreme Court affirmed an appellate court decision, ruling that Ms. Woodall is entitled to the statutory income benefit and that the time limitation does not violate constitutional provision, but denied her lump sum payout request. Although the sheriff’s department argued the statute’s four-year time limitation prevented the widow from claiming death benefits, the court disagreed, saying the four-year limitation only applied to the lump sum payout, which was intended to offset costs of transportation and burial of the body.

While Ms. Woodall argued that the time restriction in the lump sum payout statute treats the estate of injured workers who die earlier differently with no rationale, the court agreed with the appellate court’s decision to reject this argument, ruling that the statute timeframe was intended to bar “stale claims” and help with the assessment of risk in the comp system.