W.Va. Spouses Ask High Court for Assurance of Lifetime Benefits

West Virginia lawyers for spouses of people who died from work-related injuries and illnesses, including four victims of January’s Sago mine disaster, have asked the state Supreme Court in Charleston, W.Va. to ensure they receive lifetime benefits that were limited by a state policy.

Gov. Joe Manchin last month directed Insurance Commissioner Jane Cline to restore the benefits that were cut off because of the policy.
The Workers’ Compensation Commission adopted the policy in 2004 that allowed it to refuse to pay benefits to survivors after their deceased spouses would have reached 70. If benefits were awarded before 2003, those benefits could be cut off after the deceased spouses would have reached 65.

The policy was never approved either by the Performance Council, which then oversaw Workers’ Compensation, or by the Legislature. The Workers’ Compensation Commission has since become BrickStreet Mutual Insurance Co., a private company.

Manchin said his administration’s review of state law found that widows and widowers whose spouses died from work-related injuries or illnesses must receive workers’ compensation benefits until they remarry or die.

Cline wrote a letter to BrickStreet three days after Manchin’s April 14 directive.

“The letter (from Cline) is not legal protection because those benefits could be taken away tomorrow,” Charleston attorney John Skaggs, who represents some of the spouses, told the Supreme Court on Wednesday. “We want something in black and white so this issue does not come up again. It is not moot.”

BrickStreet has said paying people who would have been cut off will cost the company $30,000 per person for each year after their deceased spouses would have turned 70.

“My clients have a due process argument that the statute entitles them to benefits until death or remarriage,” said Bob Cohen, a
Morgantown lawyer who represents four widows in the Sago mine explosion in Upshur County.

Chief Justice Robin Davis said, “There is nowhere in the statute that limits the age to 70.”

The court did not immediately rule in the case. It typically takes several weeks to issue an opinion.