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Death at Work: Workers' Comp or Wrongful Death Claim?

Prosecutors charged Bumble Bee Foods and two managers after a worker was cooked to death in an industrial oven along with six tons of tuna. Plant Operations Director Angel Rodriguez and former safety manager Saul Florez could face 3 years in prison and the Bumble Bee could pay $1.5 million in fines for violating workplace safety standards.

But what about the family of the man who died, Jose Melena? Does workers’ compensation cover death in the workplace? Or will survivors need to file a wrongful death claim?

Death Benefits

Melena, 62, was killed in 2012 and left behind six children and seven grandchildren. California’s workers’ compensation system, like that in many other states, provides death benefits to spouses, children, or other dependents if an employee dies in a work-related incident.

The state’s Department of Industrial Relations determines the amount based on the number of total and partial dependents and pays benefits on a weekly basis. The statute of limitations on the collection of death benefits is one year. These requirements may be different in other states.

Without knowing how many of Melena’s children remain dependent on his income, it is tough to say how much his family might receive, but the state caps death benefits from workers’ compensation at $320,000.

Wrongful Death

In most cases, employees are prohibited from suing their employers for workplace injuries because they are covered by workers’ compensation insurance. However, if a person dies as a result of someone else’s negligence or misconduct, his or her survivors may be able to file a wrongful death claim.

In order to succeed in a wrongful lawsuit, the survivors must prove:

  • The death of a person;
  • Due to another’s negligence; and
  • The surviving family members have suffered some monetary injury as a result of the death.

In this case, supervisors thought Melena was in the bathroom when in fact he was cleaning the industrial cooker when they filled it with 12,000 pounds of tuna and turned it on. Bumble Bee has already paid nearly $74,000 in fines, and it remains unclear whether Melena’s family has filed a lawsuit against the company.

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