No family, no money: Mother seeks compensation for daughter's tragic death
In the state of Alaska, if you are single with no dependents and die while working, the family gets no compensation, other than funeral expenses. Marianne Burke discovered this shortly after her daughter Abigail Caudle, 26, died while on a job site in 2011.
"No lawyer would represent me because they said we were on workman's comp," Burke said. "They said workman's comp is the exclusive or only remedy for death in the workplace. The laws are such that the only benefit for a death in the workplace to the victim is $10,000 for funeral costs. If Abigail had dependents, there would be money for them."
Because Caudle was single, unmarried and had no children, her family wasn't awarded anything more than funeral costs. Burke has been working her daughter's case since her death in 2011. There is also a strong effort by Alaska lawmakers including Senator Tom Begich and State Representative Andy Josephson to amend the current state statute.
"This story just struck me as so unfair, it's outrageous," Rep. Josephson said. "It's also completely affordable to cover this class of people. The good news is very few people who are childless and unmarried die every year at the workplace."
Josephson says the "Abigail Caudle Bill" nearly passed as a law this past May.
"There's no way for the family to sue in negligence when they've suffered the loss of someone when they themselves didn't have a spouse or children," Josephson said. "That's what this bill was designed to remedy. We got the bill through the house this May and into the Senate Finance Committee. So, we're getting close and certainly educating people on the importance of this issue."
According to Burke, neither an injured victim nor the family of a dead loved one in the workplace can sue for negligence because the employer is protected by "no liability" in workers' compensation — employer suffers no consequences.
In a written statement Burke wrote:
"This has been the huge frustration, that zero was given for Abigail life and that absolutely nothing at all happened to Raven due to their gross negligence... this then causes less safety in the workplace. That's why these laws need to be changed so badly... Abigail had an inadequate non-contact tester that helped to cause her death. If there's no liability to the employer, why do they have to buy the better equipment?? And we finally did file a third-party lawsuit only because a Justice at the Alaska Supreme Court told me to do that.
Previously, I was barred from filing any lawsuit against a third-party ie the bank or the General Contractor Criterion but after the Justice told me to go ahead and do that, Attorney Kevin Daughtrey help me do that about 3 months ago. We are still waiting to see if they will waive the statute of limitations I'm only 2 years due to a legal defense idea of "tolling"; I did all that I could legally all this time."
Caudle was employed as an electrical apprentice with Raven Electrical. Her first day on the job was on June 20, 2011, at Alaska USA Federal Credit Union on Credit Union Drive in Anchorage. A myriad of safety violations led to Caudle's death.
While Burke and lawmakers fight for new laws regarding compensation, Burke's Alaska Supreme Court decision provides a narrow means to obtain some compensation for the loss of her daughter's life.
"When people lose a job there's millions," Burke said. "If she lost her arm there'd be a huge payout and yet death in this state, and most states in the union, there is zero dollars given to the person. It's not that we want money, we want the state to say, this person was valuable."
Burke and her attorney Kevin Dougherty filed their court papers against Criterion General and Alaska USA Federal Credit Union in early September. They anticipate a hearing sometime in 2019.
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