Court: No money for worker’s family

Published 9:37 pm Friday, February 6, 2009

An appeals court ruled Friday in a first-of-its-kind case that Alabama’s workers’ compensation law does not provide death benefits to the family of a Mexican worker killed in an accident in Alabama because the family resided in Mexico.

The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals ruled unanimously that dependents living outside the United States can’t collect death benefits under an Alabama law written in 1919.

Greg Davis, an attorney for the worker’s family, said the Legislature needs to change the law to reflect Alabama’s modern economy, with not only Hispanic workers but employees from many countries at foreign-owned factories in Alabama.

“It’s definitely time for change,” he said.

An attorney for the workers’ compensation insurance company involved in the case did not immediately return phone calls seeking comment.

Luis Martinez Silva was killed on Sept. 12, 2003, when he fell 30 feet from scaffolding at a construction project in Rockford. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited two companies for not erecting the scaffolding properly and not training workers.

The insurance company for Silva’s employer, the Goff Group, went to court to determine how to handle death benefits under Alabama’s workers’ compensation law.

Silva had entered the country legally, but his visa had expired by the time of his death. That was not an issue in the case because Alabama’s workers’ compensation law does not differentiate, Davis said.

The appeals court ruled that Silva’s wife, Reynalda Alanis Duran, and their two sons are not entitled to death benefits because state law says benefits shall only be paid to dependents who lived in the United States at the time of the employee’s death. Silva’s family lives near Mexico City.

Silva’s family argued that Alabama’s law violates the equal protection and due-process guarantees of the United States Constitution. But the Court of Civil Appeals said the dependents can’t invoke those constitutional guarantees because they are not citizens or resident aliens of the United States.

The appeals court noted that courts in several other states have wrestled with this issue and most, including Georgia, have upheld the power of the state legislatures to distinguish between resident alien beneficiaries and nonresident alien beneficiaries in workers’ compensation cases.

If Silva’s family had won, they would have received about two-thirds of his weekly salary until the children were grown, with the amount exceeding $100,000.

Silva’s family did not go without compensation. They sued the main contractor on the construction job, Pemberton Inc., and won a $3.2 million judgment. The amount was later reduced in an out-of-court settlement, Davis said.

Davis said no decision has been made about appealing to the Alabama Supreme Court. But he said it’s clear the workers’ compensation law makes it cheaper for a company if a worker with a foreign family dies on the job rather than getting seriously injured because injured workers get compensated until they recover from their injuries.