Court of Appeals of Arkansas, Divisions I, III, IV
J.M.E. AND A.K.E. (MINOR CHILDREN) APPELLANTS
VALLEY VIEW AGRI SYSTEMS, INC., GUARANTEE INSURANCE CO., AND DEATH & PERMANENT TOTAL DISABILITY TRUST FUND APPELLEES
FROM THE ARKANSAS WORKERS' COMPENSATION COMMISSION [NO.
Offices of James W. Harris, by: James W. Harris, for
L. Pake, for appellee Death & Permanent Total Disability
KENNETH S. HIXSON, Judge
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
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.
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. The Commission denied the
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."
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
. . . .
[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 ...