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J.M.E. v. Valley View Agri Systems, Inc.

Court of Appeals of Arkansas, Divisions I, III, IV

November 2, 2016

J.M.E. AND A.K.E. (MINOR CHILDREN) APPELLANTS
v.
VALLEY VIEW AGRI SYSTEMS, INC., GUARANTEE INSURANCE CO., AND DEATH & PERMANENT TOTAL DISABILITY TRUST FUND APPELLEES

         APPEAL FROM THE ARKANSAS WORKERS' COMPENSATION COMMISSION [NO. F706472]

          Law Offices of James W. Harris, by: James W. Harris, for appellants.

          David L. Pake, for appellee Death & Permanent Total Disability Trust Fund.

          KENNETH S. HIXSON, Judge

         This is a statutory-interpretation case within the confines of the Workers' Compensation Act. Our charge is not to rewrite unambiguous workers' compensation statutes. In fact, we are statutorily prohibited from doing so. The legislature expressed the "General Assembly's intent" in the Workers' Compensation Act of 1993 when it declared that, in the future, if "the scope of the workers' compensation statutes need to be liberalized, broadened, or narrowed, those things shall be addressed by the General Assembly and should not be done by administrative law judges, the Workers' Compensation Commission, or the courts." Ark. Code Ann. § 11-9-1001 (Repl. 2012). This principle permeates this appeal and underpins the majority opinion.

         The issue in this case is whether appellants J.M.E. and A.K.E., who are minor children of a deceased injured employee, are eligible for workers' compensation survivor benefits. In a typical dependent-survivor case, the minor children of an injured employee who is receiving permanent total disability payments are entitled to workers' compensation survivor benefits upon the death of the employee. What complicates this case is that, six years after the children's father/employee sustained a catastrophic injury rendering him permanently and totally disabled, his parental rights were terminated and the two children were subsequently adopted. Eight months after the children were adopted, the two children filed for statutory survivor benefits. The Workers' Compensation Commission ruled that they were not eligible for survivor benefits because by the time the two children filed for benefits they had been adopted, which rendered them strangers to the father/employee and, therefore, no longer his dependents. The appellants now challenge that ruling on appeal. We agree that the Commission erred, and we reverse for an award of survivor benefits to the minor children of the deceased employee.

         The Facts

         The pertinent facts are undisputed. J.M.E. and A.K.E. were born in 2001 and 2004, respectively. Their biological parents are Robert Emmons and Kimberly Emmons. On June 22, 2007, Mr. Emmons suffered a catastrophic compensable injury while working for appellee Valley View Agri Systems, which rendered him a quadriplegic and permanently and totally disabled. At the time of the injury, the minor children J.M.E. and A.K.E were living with their biological parents and were dependent on Mr. Emmons for support. Mr. Emmons timely received $75, 000 in benefits from the employer/insurance carrier and was receiving monthly permanent and total disability payments from the Death and Permanent Disability Trust Fund. In April 2011, DHS took custody of both children because of dependency-neglect due, in large part, to both the father's and mother's drug use. On March 4, 2013, an order was entered that terminated both Mr. Emmons' and Mrs. Emmons' parental rights to both children. On October 1, 2013, Mr. Emmons died as a consequence of the compensable injury. On January 2, 2014, J.M.E. and A.K.E. were adopted by their new parents. On August 20, 2014, J.M.E. and A.K.E. filed their claim for survivor benefits arising from Mr. Emmons' work-related death caused by his compensable injury.[1] The Commission denied the survivor-benefits claim.

         Analysis

         When an employee sustains a compensable injury rendering the employee permanently and totally disabled, the employee is entitled to permanent and total disability payments. Ark. Code Ann. § 11-9-519 (Repl. 2012). When an employee dies as a result of the compensable injury, his dependents are entitled to survivor benefits. Ark. Code Ann. § 11-9-527 (Repl. 2012). Subsection 11-9-527(h) pointedly and unambiguously provides that "[all] questions of dependency shall be determined as of the time of the injury."

         Even though the children were living with their biological father, Mr. Emmons, at the time of his compensable injury in 2007 and were being supported by him at that time, the Commission nonetheless concluded that the children were ineligible for survivor benefits. The Commission's decision was based on the fact that, before the children filed their claim for survivor benefits, they had been adopted by other parents. The Commission relied on an adoption statute, specifically Arkansas Code Annotated section 9-9-215(a)(1) & (2) (Repl. 2015), which provides in pertinent part:

A final decree of adoption . . . [has] the following effect as to matters within the jurisdiction or before a court of this state:
. . . .
[T]o relieve the biological parents of the adopted individual of all parental rights and responsibilities, and to terminate all legal relationships between the adopted individual and his or her biological relatives, including his or her biological parents, so that the adopted individual thereafter is a stranger to his or her former relatives for all purposes. This includes inheritance and the interpretation or construction of documents, statutes, and instruments, whether executed before or after the adoption is decreed, which ...

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