Supreme Court of Georgia Examines Constitutionality of Georgia’s Workers’ Compensation Scheme

Given the pervasiveness of workplace injuries, every state in the Union, including the state of Georgia, has enacted a workers’ compensation scheme to resolve claims arising from death or injuries at the workplace. Although the overall legal propriety of workers’ compensation schemes is well settled, questions regarding the constitutionality of certain provisions are still occasionally raised. For instance, in a recent decision, Barzey v. City of Cuthbert, the Supreme Court of Georgia addressed the constitutionality of certain provisions of Georgia’s workers compensation scheme that bar a non-dependent heir from bringing a claim to recover for a worker’s death, even if that heir happens to be the worker’s only heir at law.
In 2010, the worker at issue in Barzey was killed while acting in the course of his employment with the City of Cuthbert. After the worker’s death, the worker’s mother, his sole heir at law, filed a lawsuit against the City, which sought a judgment declaring that she had a right to bring an action against the city for the worker’s death. Although she acknowledged that the Workers’ Compensation Act expressly provides that compensation for a deceased employee “shall be payable only to dependents and only during dependency,” O.C.G.A. § 34-9-265 (c), and that reasonable expenses for burial “shall be the only compensation” when “the employee leaves no dependents,” O.C.G.A. § 34-9-265 (b)(1), the mother argued that these provisions, as applied to her situation, violated rights to substantive due process and equal protection under the United States Constitution. The trial court granted the city’s motion to dismiss, holding that the plaintiff’s constitutional claims were without legal basis and meritless.

After addressing preliminary issues regarding its jurisdiction over the case, the Supreme Court turned to the constitutional claims. Generally, when addressing the constitutionality of a law, courts vary the level of scrutiny applied depending on whether the law impinges on an established fundamental right or discriminates based on an established suspect classification, such as sex, national origin, or race. When a law does neither, the level of scrutiny that is generally applied is rational basis scrutiny. Rational basis scrutiny is the minimum level of scrutiny that all laws must satisfy, and it is not an exacting standard to meet. To satisfy rational basis review, a law and the classifications it draws must simply bear a “rational relationship to a legitimate government objective.” State v. Nankervis, Case No. S14A0513, 2014 WL 2924864, *2 (2014). It does not matter if the law is over-inclusive or under-inclusive, or that the purported government interest may not be the actual government interest.
Since the Supreme Court of Georgia had not yet addressed the constitutionality of limiting compensation to dependent heirs, it looked to decisions from other courts. In particular, the court cited Taylor v. Southeast-Harrison Western Corp., a decision from the Supreme Court of Alaska, which held, “The fact that [the estates of deceased workers with dependents] are entitled to favored treatment, over the estates of workers leaving no dependents, reflects a legislative determination that the former require greater compensation, because of the need to replace the income that provided support for those dependent upon the deceased worker prior to his death. This determination, in our judgment, is entirely reasonable.” 694 P.2d. 1160, 1162 (Alaska 1985). Accordingly, the court found that Georgia’s Workers’ Compensation Act’s distinction between dependent and non-dependent heirs bears a rational relationship to a legitimate government interest.
In addition, the court also summarily rejected the plaintiff’s second argument, which simply put, contended that the Workers’ Compensation Act’s bar to civil suit unconstitutionally conflicted with her statutory right pursuant to O.C.G.A. § 19-7-1 (c)(1) to bring a survivorship action on behalf of the estate of her deceased son. The court noted the state legislature, as a matter of both Georgia Constitutional law and U.S. Constitutional law, has “[t]he power … to create, modify or abolish rights to sue.” Couch v. Parker, 280 Ga. 580, 582 (2006). Indeed, the right to bring a survivorship action was created by government. Accordingly, it follows that the state, absent some other discriminatory or unconstitutional purpose, is free to abolish or modify the right to sue for some subset.
Although intended to prevent needless litigation and provide efficient recovery for those injured at the workplace, workers’ compensation laws, as demonstrated by the current case, can still occasion considerable legal quarreling. In addition, many of those injured at the workplace are often dissatisfied with the limitations to recovery imposed by workers’ compensation. Considering these difficulties, one who is injured at the workplace should consider speaking with knowledgeable counsel about the options that exist for either legal action outside the workers’ compensation scheme or, alternatively, efficacious use of the scheme. The Georgia workplace injury attorneys at the Law Office of Terrence R. Bethune have experience with both workers’ compensation law and general tort law and are prepared to answer these types of questions. If you are in this situation and would like legal guidance, please feel free to contact us for a free case evaluation.
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