A worker died when the lawn mower he was using went into a bayou in Louisiana, flipped over and pinned him underwater. Did his family get $75,000 in death benefits and $123,722 in medical expenses?
On March 31, 2018, Jonathan Miller was mowing the lawn of the Hakim family in Monroe, LA. He was employed by Rayville Manufacturing in a work-release program.
The lawn included a steep slope toward the bank of a bayou.
While mowing, Miller and the lawn mower went into the bayou where the mower flipped over and pinned him underwater.
He was treated at the scene and at a hospital, but he died of his injuries two days later.
The cause of death was ruled to be drowning complicated by traumatic compression of the chest.
Miller’s parents filed a workers’ comp claim against Rayville on behalf of Miller’s two daughters. The claim sought death benefits for the children, payment of medical and funeral expenses, and attorney fees for Rayville’s failure to pay benefits.
A workers’ compensation judge (WCJ) ruled in favor of Miller’s family.
Rayville was ordered to pay $75,000 in death benefits, $123,722 in death benefits, a $2,000 penalty, and $25,000 in attorney fees.
Rayville appealed. A Louisiana appeals court heard the case.
Arguments include ‘laws of physics’
Rayville presented several arguments to get the WCJ’s decision dismissed. All of these arguments were thrown out:
- The WCJ didn’t place the burden of proving this was a work-related death on Miller’s family. The appeals court found there was no evidence presented to refute that Miller was doing anything other than performing his duties of mowing the lawn as instructed.
- The WCJ based her decision on findings in an OSHA report which included two citations issued to Rayville. The appeals court found the information in the citations was corroborated by other testimony, therefore it should be considered reliable.
- Miller may not have been “mowing” at the time of the incident. The company argued, since the blades of the mower weren’t down, he wasn’t mowing. The appeals court said, in this case, “mowing” included use of the law mower, whether or not the blades were down at the time.
- The lawn mower would have stopped if Miller’s hands had been taken off the handles. The mower he was using would stop if hands weren’t on the handles. But the court noted, “The basic laws of physics dictate that a sizable riding mower, with the added weight of an adult operator, traveling downhill, would have certain inertia that would affect the rate at which it would slow to a stop.”
- Miller had a “cardiac event” that led to his death. The appeals court said the WCJ properly considered the evidence and there was not error in finding that Miller died of drowning.
- The WCJ disregarded testimony from an eyewitness. The appeals court said the WCJ’s reasons for giving greater weight to the testimony of a medical expert over that of an eyewitness wasn’t improper.
- At the time of his death, his children were living with their grandparents and Miller wasn’t supporting them. The court threw out this reasoning, too.
The only place where the company prevailed was on the issue of attorney fees. The court said Rayville should pay the family’s attorney fees, but the question of how much that should be was remanded for further consideration.
The appeals court ordered Rayville to pay $75,000 in death benefits, $123,722 in death benefits, a $2,000 penalty, and attorney fees of an amount to be determined.
(Frank Miller et al v. Rayville Manufacturing, Court of Appeal, Second Circuit, Louisiana, No. 53,573-WCA, 11/18/20)