Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Death Benefits Wrongfully Denied to Woman Whose Fiancé Died in Industrial Accident

A woman whose fiancé and father of her children died in an industrial accident was wrongfully denied death benefits solely because she was not his spouse, the Supreme Court of Ohio ruled today.

In a unanimous per curiam opinion, the Supreme Court ruled the Ohio Industrial Commission did not completely analyze the death benefits law, but instead focused only on whether Amanda Carpenter was Christopher McDonald’s wife. An unmarried person in a relationship with the deceased is not “presumed” to be entitled to death benefits under the law, but a case-by-case inquiry needs to be made under such circumstances.

The Court vacated the industrial commission’s order and directed it to determine if Carpenter is entitled to death benefits as a “member of McDonald’s family.”

Benefit Denial Contested
In 2019, McDonald died in a ditch collapse. Carpenter, the mother of McDonald’s two minor children, applied to the Bureau of Workers’ Compensation for death benefits on behalf of the children and herself.

Carpenter identified herself as McDonald’s fiancée. She provided a sworn statement that she and McDonald had been in a relationship for 11 years and jointly owned property. The two were jointly responsible for mortgage and vehicle lease payments and credit card debts. Each had life insurance policies naming the other as the sole beneficiary. Carpenter indicated she worked part-time, and McDonald was the primary financial support for her and their two children. She added that they “had every intention of being married if not for this accident.”

A district hearing officer awarded benefits to the children, but not to Carpenter. She appealed and a staff hearing officer awarded her death benefits as well. The order was then appealed to the industrial commission, which vacated the decision of its staff hearing officer and denied Carpenter death benefits.

The commission determined Carpenter was not dependent on McDonald as a surviving spouse because they were never married and they could not be considered married under common law because Ohio abolished common-law marriage in 1991. The commission also stated that case law has not extended the benefit to “an unmarried person in a relationship” with the deceased, as Carpenter suggested.

Carpenter requested a writ of mandamus from the Tenth District Court of Appeals ordering the industrial commission to reverse its decision and award her death benefits. The Tenth District did so, and the industrial commission appealed the decision to the Supreme Court.

Supreme Court Analyzed Death Benefit Law
Payment of death benefits to the dependents of a worker who died on the job is governed by R.C. 4123.59(D), the opinion explained. The law explains that a surviving spouse living with the employee at the time of death is presumed to be wholly dependent on the deceased and entitled to death benefits.

The law says a “member of the family” may be a “prospective dependent” if the person also “bears to the deceased employee the relation of surviving spouse, lineal descendant, ancestor, or brother or sister.” The industrial commission may take any facts into consideration that indicate the person’s prospective dependency.

In all other cases, the commission must decide “in accordance with the facts in each particular case” if the person is “a member of the family of the deceased employee, or bears to the deceased employee the relation of surviving spouse, lineal descendant, ancestor, or brother or sister.”

The Court stated this last paragraph of the law applies to claims brought by a person not presumed to be a dependent of the employee, and may even apply to a surviving spouse if the spouse was not living with the employee at the time of death.

The opinion stated that the last paragraph of R.C. 4123.59(D) provides two potential categories of dependents. One is a member of the family of the deceased employee. The second is a person who “bears to the deceased employee the relation of surviving spouse, lineal descendant, ancestor, or brother or sister.” Because the sentence contains an “or,” a person does not have to be married to the deceased employee to be a member of the family, the Court ruled.

The law indicates “any” person may be eligible for benefits if that person is determined to be “a member of the family,” the opinion stated. Ohio workers’ compensation laws do not define “member of the family.” When denying Carpenter benefits, the commission did not consider or determine whether she was a member of McDonald’s family, the opinion stated.

The commission argued that for more than 80 years, the law in Ohio required a legal marriage before it was required to pay death benefits. The opinion noted the commission used cases from 1922 and 1957 to support its argument.

The Court pointed to more recent cases in which stepchildren who were not formally adopted, but lived with and were dependent on the deceased employee, were considered members of the family and were awarded death benefits.

The opinion stated the commission could consider that an unmarried person in a relationship with the deceased is a member of the family. The Court pointed to definitions in Black’s Law Dictionary that could include Carpenter. For instance, one definition of “family” in the law dictionary is “a group consisting of parents and their children,” the opinion noted. Another is “a group of people who live together and usu[ally] have a shared commitment to a domestic relationship.”

“Accordingly — as these definitions show — it is very well possible that Carpenter could qualify as a ‘member of the family of the deceased employee,’” the Court concluded. “Whether Carpenter actually qualifies as a ‘member of the family of the deceased employee’ under the particular facts of this case is a question that the commission will have to address.”

2022-0143. State ex rel. McDonald v. Indus. Comm., Slip Opinion No. 2023-Ohio-1620.

Please note: Opinion summaries are prepared by the Office of Public Information for the general public and news media. Opinion summaries are not prepared for every opinion, but only for noteworthy cases. Opinion summaries are not to be considered as official headnotes or syllabi of court opinions. The full text of this and other court opinions are available online.

Adobe PDF PDF files may be viewed, printed, and searched using the free Acrobat® Reader
Acrobat Reader is a trademark of Adobe Systems Incorporated.