On September 21, 2020, the Supreme Court of Oklahoma, in
Whipple v. Phillips and Sons Trucking, LLC, found that Oklahoma workers compensation statute 85A O.S. Supp. 2014 § 47—which allows recovery of workers compensation death benefits only by a spouse, child, or dependent legal guardian of a deceased employee—is unconstitutional to the extent that it denies recovery to the mother or other next of kin of an unmarried, childless decedent with no legal guardian dependents.
In this case, the mother of a deceased employee sued the employer under the state’s wrongful death statute (12 O.S. 2011 § 1053). The decedent had no spouse, children, or legal guardian dependents. The trial court granted partial summary judgment for the employer, ruling that the mother’s only remedy was in the workers compensation system. However, as the supreme court noted, the mother was not entitled to workers compensation death benefits because 85A O.S. Supp. 2014 § 47 allows recovery only by certain listed individuals.
The supreme court reversed the trial court’s decision granting summary judgment. The court found that the right of a parent to bring a wrongful death action when the decedent is an unmarried, childless adult with no legal guardian dependents, is established by the state’s wrongful death statute and by Article 23 § 7 of the Oklahoma Constitution, which prohibits the abrogation of the right to recover damages for injuries resulting in death. The court reasoned that, though the legislature may limit the right to recover for injuries resulting in death, it may not fully eliminate the right to recover. Accordingly, the court struck down as unconstitutional the statutory limitation on the recovery of death benefits only by a spouse, child, or legal guardian dependent of a decedent imposed by 85A O.S. Supp. 2014 § 47.
NCCI will monitor for further developments.
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