The Supreme Court of Georgia upheld a Randolph County court decision that a woman whose adult son was killed while working for the City of Cuthbert is not entitled to her son’s death benefit, despite being his only legal heir. Louise Shorter Barzey argued the Georgia statute preventing her from the compensation is unconstitutional.
On July 16, 2010, Deron Shorter was operating a mower for the City of Cuthbert when he crashed into a ditch. The mower turned over onto Shorter and he was pronounced dead at the scene.
Prior to working with the city, Shorter worked as a firefighter for 13 years. He was single and did not have children. But he did have a mother, Louise Shorter Barzey, who, under the law, was considered his sole heir. She was not dependent on her son. But as his sole legal heir, she filed a lawsuit against the City, claiming 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 states 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 distinguishing between dependents and heirs violated her federal constitutional rights to due process and equal protection by precluding her, as a non-dependent parent, from bringing a claim to recover for his death.
In October 2013, the trial court ruled in favor of the City, and Barzey then appealed to the state Supreme Court.
On September 22, 2014 the Supreme Court of Georgia delivered its unanimous opinion. Justice David Nahmias succinctly stated: “We affirm the trial court’s ruling that the Act’s limitation on the recovery of non-dependent heirs does not violate Barzey’s constitutional rights to due process and equal protection.”
A statute “does not violate due process in substance as long as it ‘bear[s] a rational relationship to a legitimate objective of the government,’” the opinion says. Similarly, to survive an equal protection challenge, “the classifications drawn in the statute [must] bear a rational relationship to a legitimate end of government not prohibited by the Constitution.”
Though the Georgia Supreme Court has never ruled on the constitutionality of disallowing non-dependent heirs from recovery under the Workers’ Compensation Act, many courts in other jurisdictions have. “Those courts have consistently held that the legislature may rationally decide to direct workers’ compensation resources to those who are dependent on deceased employees and limit the recovery of non-dependents, and thus the distinction between dependents and non-dependents does not violate federal or state constitutional rights to due process and equal protection,” the opinion provides.