Oh, Brother: A Compensable Fratricide

September 7th, 2007 by

This is a tale out of the North Carolina woods, concerning the Forbes brothers, Ernie and Wilbert. Here’s a legal account of what took place on September 26, 2000:

Wilbert Radel Forbes, his brother Ernest Forbes, James Duncan, Ronnie Duncan, and William Dobson traveled together in a van to a logging site in Halifax County. The men were members of a logging crew scheduled to work that day. During the drive to the logging site, defendant and his brother began arguing because Ernest did not stop at a convenience store where the crew usually stopped.
Upon arriving at the logging site, Ernest got out of the van and walked away, and defendant got out, punched Ronnie Duncan in the side and said “watch this.” Duncan then testified that defendant told his brother “if you can do so much without me on Saturdays go grease the loader and change the oil.” Ernest stopped, turned around and said to defendant, “why do you f— with me so much.” Ernest then started back towards defendant, and the two began pushing and shoving. Duncan then got in between the two men and separated them, and Ernest told defendant “if I had any knife I would cut your m — f— throat.” Duncan testified that Ernest did not have a knife at the time.
Duncan then testified that defendant pulled out a gun, pointed it at Ernest and said to Duncan, “you don’t believe I’ll blow his m — f— brains out?” Duncan told defendant to “stop playing,” but defendant pulled the hammer back, said to Ernest “I’ll blow your m — f —,” and pulled the trigger. Ernest died from a gunshot wound to the head.

Ernie’s widow filed a claim for workers comp benefits, which were awarded under the theory that the death was work related, because Wilbert ordered his brother to “grease the loader and change the oil.” His brother responded in anger, the fight erupted and Ernie ends up dead. It’s work related because the argument stemmed from work – even though work had very little to do with the brothers’s deteriorating relationship.
Lessons for Management?
You have to wonder how much of the animosity between the Forbes brothers was revealed prior to the fatal encounter. Logging is a tough, high risk occupation, usually taking place in remote areas. The employer, Goodson Logging, would have been better off firing one (or both) of the brothers for what we can assume were long-standing problems in dealing with each other.
Cynics might assume that Wilbert filed a comp claim for post-traumatic stress syndrome. After all, he did lose a brother in this terrible incident. Well, you cannot collect comp while in prison, and Wilbert is currently doing life without parole. He appealed his sentence, claiming the whole thing was an accident. It might have been a compensable incident, but the appeals court determined that it was no accident. Wilbert acted wilfully and is paying the consequences. As far as the comp benefits going to Ernie’s widow, this is one family quarrel where the employer is stuck with the bill.