Supreme Court to hear Cuthbert insurance case -, Albany News, Weather, Sports

Supreme Court to hear Cuthbert insurance case

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The Georgia Supreme Court announced that it will hear the case of BARZEY V. CITY OF CUTHBERT (S14A0620)  next week.

A woman whose adult son was killed while working for the City of Cuthbert is appealing a Randolph County court ruling that she is not entitled to her son's death benefit, even though she is his only legal heir. She argues the Georgia statute barring her from the compensation is unconstitutional.            

 On July 16, 2010, 37-year-old Deron Shorter was operating a mower for the City of Cuthbert when he crashed into a ditch. The mower overturned on Shorter and he was pronounced dead at the scene. Prior to his job with the public works department, Shorter had been a city firefighter for 13 years. He was not married and had no dependents.

Shorter did, however, have a mother – Louise Shorter Barzey – who, under the law, was considered his sole heir. She was not dependent on her son. She claimed that as his sole legal heir, she was entitled to his death benefit under the Georgia Workers Compensation Act.

The City disagreed, based on a provision of the Act, Official Code of Georgia § 34-9-265, which says that the death benefit for a worker who dies on the job may only be paid to legal dependents. For the employee who has no dependents, expenses for the employee's burial "shall be the only compensation," the statute says.

Barzey argued that drawing the distinction between dependents and heirs violated her constitutional right to Equal Protection. The City filed a motion requesting "summary judgment," which a trial court judge grants after determining that a jury trial is unnecessary because the facts are undisputed and the law falls squarely on the side of one of the parties. In October 2013, the trial court ruled in the City's favor, and Barzey now appeals to the state Supreme Court.            

Barzey's attorney argues the trial court made several errors, including granting summary judgment to the City before he had the opportunity to file his brief opposing the motion. Under the law, he had 30 days to file the brief from the time the City filed its motion. He filed his within 15 days, "but it was never considered by the trial court because the motion granting summary adjudication was entered the previous day," the attorney argues. "The failure to consider appellant's response is clear error," as any opposing party "has an absolute and incontrovertible right to be heard and considered before any ruling is made by the trial court."

The death benefit statute, § 34-9-265, conflicts with statutory law and with "common law" – the body of law derived from judicial decisions rather than from statutes. The death benefit statute excluding Barzey conflicts with several Georgia statutes, including § 19-7-1 which states that in "every case of the homicide of a child, minor or [of full age and capacity], there shall be some party entitled to recover the full value of the life of the child…."

With § 34-9-265, "Georgia has created a statutory barrier to compensation for a work-related death claim that prejudices single employees with no ascertainable dependents, whereas there is no such barrier for a married employee," the attorney argues. "Moreover, it has annulled a mother's sole heir at law entitlement under every comparable death compensation statute where her unmarried child died as a consequence of varying causes that require legal redress."

"What we are witnessing in this case is a blatant legislative attempt to insulate commercialism at the expense of individual rights and there is no polite way to confront it other than by the strongest advocacy required of counsel for the victim."            

The City's attorney argues the state Supreme Court should dismiss this appeal because Barzey's attorney has failed to show how and where the statute violates the Constitution. Instead he makes "vague reference to equal protection and due process" but never engages "in any meaningful constitutional analysis," the attorney argues in briefs. Official Code of Georgia § 34-9-265 "provides that death benefits shall be paid only to those who are dependents (i.e. those receiving the support) of the deceased worker.

Death benefits under workers' compensation statutes are intended to compensate beneficiaries for their injury, which is the loss of support resulting from the death of the deceased worker."

In response to Barzey's argument that her attorney did not have an opportunity to be heard before the trial court ruled in the City's favor, Barzey suffered no harm as a result, and it "does not constitute reversible error for the trial court to rule on a motion prematurely where the complaining party has suffered no harm as a result."

Also, the Georgia Workers Compensation Act does not conflict with common law and does not infringe on constitutional rights, the City argues. The City also disputes Barzey's contention that the "homicide of a child" statute applies to this case. "Deron Shorter was 37 years old when he died," the City argues. "He should not and does not qualify as a ‘child' under the statute."

Attorney for Appellant (Barzey): Robert White

Attorney for Appellee (City): Franklin Coleman, IV


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