Recent Court of Appeals Decision – Death Benefits


The Court of Appeals recently published its decision in Sherman Concrete Pipe Co. v. Chinn, 283 Ga. 468 (2008).  Although limited in its application, it is an excellent illustration of an attorney approaching a claim from all permissible angles to achieve a good result for the client.

The case arises out of a situation in which a surviving spouse had been paid benefits for approximately 13 years when the Georgia Insurers and Solvency Pool began handling the claim.  The Pool suspended her benefits based on a 1989 amendment to O.C.G.A. § 34-9-13(e).  She then filed a claim asserting, among other things, that the 1989 amendment was unconstitutional.  The matter was eventually heard before the Supreme Court.

At issue was the legislative procedure in enacting the 1989 amendment.  Prior to 1989, O.C.G.A. § 34-9-13(e) provided that “the dependency of a partial dependent shall terminate at age 65 or after payment of 400 weeks of benefits, whichever is greater.”  This was in regard to the receipt of death benefits in workers’ compensation matters.  The 1989 amendment provided “the dependency of his spouse and the partial dependents shall terminate at age 65 or after payment of 400 weeks of benefits, whichever occurs first.”

The 1989 Act which provided the amendment to O.C.G.A. § 34-9-13(e) carried a title which indicated that all of the changes enacted were basically non-substantive “housekeeping” alterations to the language of the statutes.  It did not indicate that any substantive changes were made.  Clearly, the changes that were made for the 1989 amendment were substantive.  The changes would in some cases greatly limit the amount of benefits available to the surviving spouse or dependents.

On April 21, 2008, the Supreme Court of Georgia ruled that the amendment and O.C.G.A. § 34-9-13(e) was not a “housekeeping” matter and rather was substantive.  The title of the 1989 Act did not indicate substantive changes were being made.  Therefore, the fact that substantive changes were made to § 34-9-13(e) was unconstitutional and the Supreme Court held that the amendment was void.

As one can see, this decision has very limited application.  However, it does put workers’ compensation attorneys on notice that great care should be exercised in examining amendments of workers’ compensation provisions to determine if there is a possibility that they may be unconstitutional based on a technicality as was found in the Chin case.