The New Mexico Supreme Court has ordered a trial court to take another look at a case involving a police officer who died while saving a drowning child. Whether he was in the course and scope of his employment at the time will determine if his widow gets workers’ comp death benefits.
Officer Kevin Schultz with the Pojoaque Tribal Police Department had taken a day off to chaperone a church youth group on a picnic. While there, he jumped into the Rio Grande River near Pilar, NM, and save a 12-year-old boy from drowning.
Immediately after saving the boy, Schultz collapsed face-down in shallow water.
A medical examiner says while entering the river, Schultz may have hit his head on a rock, and that led to his death.
His wife, Cheryl Schultz, sought workers’ comp death benefits.
A workers’ comp judge (WCJ) found two problems with the request for benefits:
- They were requested more than a year after the officer died, and
- He was off duty when the incident occurred.
‘We’ll take care of it’
Why did Cheryl Schultz wait more than a year to file for the benefits? One reason: The tribal police chief had told her he’d take care of filing the workers’ comp paperwork.
When she realized he hadn’t done that, she filed herself.
Cheryl Schultz appealed the WCJ’s decision to a trial court. Her argument: The delay in filing was caused by the employer’s conduct … or in this case, the lack of it.
But the trial court agreed with the WCJ. Last summer, Mrs. Schultz took her case to the New Mexico Supreme Court (NM SC).
The state’s highest court reversed the judgement of the WCJ and the trial court.
The NM SC noted that the state’s workers’ comp law had an exception to the one-year period for filing a death benefits claim: when the filing delay is caused by the employer’s conduct.
And in this case, the employer’s conduct — promising Mrs. Schultz that it would take care of the workers’ comp filing and then not doing so — did cause the delay.
Now the case will go back to the trial court to determine whether Officer Schultz died within the course and scope of his employment and whether Mrs. Schultz will receive workers’ comp death benefits.
Her attorney says he has a strong case in favor of the comp benefits. Officer Schultz is listed on the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington, DC which is only for those who die in the line of duty. A detective with the Schultz’s police force sent the paperwork seeking this honor.
The attorney also has a letter from the lieutenant governor of Pojoaque Pueblo who wrote the tribal government considered Schultz’s death to be in the line of duty.
Do you think Schultz’s widow should get workers’ comp death benefits? Let us know in the comments below.
(Schultz v. Pojoaque Tribal Police Department, Supreme Court of NM, No. 33,372, 4/11/13)