Big Holes in the Comp Safety Net

February 4th, 2009 by

We know how James Strickland died. Strickland worked for Bay Area Regional Transit (BART) in San Francisco. On October 14, he was walking east on the westbound track, checking for safety problems. An eastbound train, traveling 70 mph, slammed into him. (Now there’s a safety problem!) He died instantly. But when you review the post-accident activities of BART, you get the impression that they are not quite sure Strickland is really dead.
We read in that Strickland’s widow Linda is still waiting for workers comp benefits, nearly four months after the accident. According to BART, they are lacking some paperwork – not enough, mind you, to prevent them from paying the $5,000 burial benefit, Strickland’s final paycheck and a life insurance policy.
Systemic Failures
Linda Strickland complains that BART failed to contact her directly on the day her husband was killed. BART responds that they tried unsuccessfully to reach her. Mrs. Strickland first learned about the accident on the radio; a friend later informed her that her husband was involved.
BART has apparently told Linda that Strickland himself was at fault in the incident: he should have known that BART was single-tracking trains on the day of the accident. Of course, under workers comp laws, even if Strickland was at fault, the accident is still compensable and Linda is entitled to benefits. (A more gracious employer might avoid placing blame directly on the deceased, especially in the course of informal conversations with the grieving widow.)
As far as the missing documentation goes, it’s easy to understand why BART needs a copy of the marriage certificate. But why are they asking for the death certificate, the coroner’s report and earnings statements? Don’t they know the circumstances of the death and how much they paid Strickland? Don’t they have enough information readily available to commence weekly benefits and adjust them later, if necessary?
The comp system is designed to provide prompt benefits, usually commencing (by law) within 14 days of an injury. Sometimes there are significant questions of compensability, which under rare circumstances might delay the initial payments. In this case, it’s hard to imagine the rationale for any delays. BART prides itself in providing on-time transportation for its customers. They should approach benefits for their own employees with the same determined attitude.