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Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court Affirms Death Benefits for Common-Law Spouse of Fatally Injured Worker

Under the Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act, relatives of a fatally injured worker may receive death benefits. These benefits serve to compensate surviving spouses, children, and other dependent family members for the loss of financial support. But sometimes legal issues arise concerning the relationship between the dependents and the deceased worker.

Common-Law Law Firm

A recent Commonwealth Court decision, Elk Mountain Ski Resort v. Tietz, deceased, and Tietz-Morrison, affirmed an award of death benefits to a surviving spouse in a common-law marriage.   In this case, the claimant, or surviving spouse, alleged that her husband died due to multiple traumatic injuries sustained in a utility-tractor rollover accident. On a fatal claim petition, she listed herself and her two children as dependents.  The employer formally agreed that the death was work-related and that the daughters were entitled to weekly death benefits.  But it was not determined that the couple was legally married at the time of death.  The parties agreed to submit the issue of whether the couple was legally married at the time of death to a Workers’ Compensation Judge (WCJ).

Before the WCJ, the surviving spouse testified that she and the deceased had entered into a common-law marriage in 2004, one year before the State Legislature abolished common-law marriage. She detailed their traditional Native American marriage ceremony and presented documents to prove the existence of the marriage. And she testified that she and the deceased lived together with their children from the marriage ceremony until his death, holding themselves out as husband and wife, to be recognized by the community and at work. The WCJ found a common-law marriage contract existed, and that she was entitled to death benefits as the deceased worker’s surviving spouse.

The Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board affirmed this decision, and it held that because the deceased worker was unable to testify, there was a rebuttable presumption in favor of a common-law marriage upon proof of living together and reputation of marriage.  The Board held that the surviving spouse’s evidence supported the WCJ’s findings. The employer appealed the decision, and the case proceeded to the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court.

The Commonwealth Court limited the issue to whether the WCJ committed an error of law, and whether the findings of fact were supported by substantial evidence.  In other words, the Court made clear that they would not reweigh the evidence. The question was whether the WCJ’s finding, the existence of a common-law marriage, met its legally required burden of proof:  clear and convincing evidence.

In most workers’ compensation proceedings, the burden of proof is a preponderance of evidence. But, in the case of a common-law marriage, clear and convincing evidence, a stricter standard, applies. This, the Commonwealth Court explained, is because common-law marriage claims are discouraged and reviewed with great scrutiny.

While the employer argued that the surviving spouses’ testimony did not meet the clear and convincing standard, the Commonwealth Court held otherwise. Among other evidence, the surviving spouse presented testimony regarding verba in praisenti, the words exchanged between husband and wife during the marriage ceremony.  The Court also noted testimonial evidence about Native American culture and practices, and the surviving spouse’s explanation that a marriage license or certificate was not part of these culture and beliefs. Importantly, the court stated that the employer did not present evidence disputing the surviving spouses’ testimony.

Finally, the Commonwealth Court made clear that the WCJ determines credibility and weighs the evidence. By accepting the surviving spouse’s testimony as credible, the WCJ found it to be clear and convincing evidence that she and the deceased worker were legally husband and wife. And, the Court noted, while she was not required to do so, the surviving spouse also provided “overwhelming” evidence of constant cohabitation and a reputation of marriage. Since she was the common-law wife at the time of his death, the Court held that she is entitled to death benefits under the Workers’ Compensation Act.

Evidentiary issues can be complicated, and it is important to secure knowledgeable legal counsel to represent your workers’ compensation claim. The experienced Pennsylvania attorneys at The Needle Law Firm provide a free, confidential consultation. Contact the office today at 570-344-1266.

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