You be the Judge: The Case of the Kid and the Cash

An unmarried, absent father dies at work. Does his company have to pay to support his child?

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Noma Bar for Reader’s Digest

Jessica Douglas gave birth to a baby girl named Jamie on April 22, 1998. Soon after, the pair moved in with Douglas’s boyfriend, Scott Moore, whom Douglas had been dating for some time. Though they all lived together in Moore’s Michigan home on and off for several months, Moore wasn’t entirely certain that he was Jamie’s father. In fact, he filed a complaint to determine the child’s paternity. Results from the DNA test came back at the beginning of September and proved that Moore was indeed Jamie’s dad. By then, however, Douglas and little Jamie had moved out. Though Moore no longer supported them financially, he was still, according to Douglas, “a father to [Jamie].”

Less than a month after he received the paternity results, Moore was working a job at an apartment complex for his employer, Prestige Painting. A gust of wind caused him to lose control of an aluminum extension ladder he was carrying, and the ladder touched an overhead power line. Moore was electrocuted. He died shortly after.

On behalf of her daughter, Douglas filed a petition to receive death benefits from Prestige Painting. In September 2002, a Workers’ Compensation Board magistrate ruled that Jamie was eligible for benefits, since, according to the Workers’ Disability Compensation Act, a child under the age of 16—whether legitimate or illegitimate, whether living with the deceased employee or not—“shall be conclusively presumed to be wholly dependent for support.” The magistrate awarded Douglas 500 weeks of benefits at $252.33 a week.

“The order was clearly in the best interest of the child,” says Douglas’s attorney, Allen Wall.

But within days, Prestige Painting appealed to the Workers’ Compensation Appellate Commission (WCAC). Attorney Robert W. Macy called the magistrate’s decision a “legal error” and cited a different statute in the same Compensation Act, which stated that a child had to be “living with” the employee at the time of death to be considered an eligible dependent.

Should Prestige Painting be required to pay death benefits to Scott Moore’s daughter even though the child wasn’t living with him when he died on the job? You be the judge.

Next: The Verdict

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Noma Bar for Reader’s Digest

The Verdict

In 2003, the WCAC reversed the magistrate’s ruling, denying benefits for Jamie. But this legal battle was far from finished. Over the next four years, in appeal after appeal, Wall and Macy argued over those two workers’ comp statutes. They finally agreed to apply the rule stating that the child was not required to be living with the employee to receive benefits. Then the debate focused on which specific points in that statute were applicable here. The final question came down to this: Had Moore “deserted” Jamie? According to the second sentence in the statute, a child is “dependent for support upon a deceased employee” if the child “has been deserted by such deceased employee.” In December 2007, the Court of Appeals gave the last word: “We conclude that decedent Scott Moore did not desert his daughter, Jamie Douglas, and, as a result, Jamie was not a conclusive dependent.” Jamie was, therefore, not eligible for benefits. Had Moore deserted Jamie, she would have been eligible. Says Douglas’s attorney, “It kind of makes you scratch your head, doesn’t it?”

Was justice served? Does Jamie Douglas deserve benefits? Tell us what you think in the comments section.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest