- The Washington Times - Monday, October 23, 2000

A D.C. Court of Appeals decision this month denied compensation benefits to the separated wife of a man killed on the job.

Legal experts said the case sets a precedent in the District that could limit the liability of employers when workers are killed or injured.

The court ruled Oct. 5 that the woman, Susan Pickrel, did not qualify as a widow under the Workers' Compensation Act that grants "widow's benefits" when workers die on the job.

Her husband, Ronald Pickrel, was shot to death by an employee of Star Vending Co. during an argument. Mr. Pickrel and his son were co-owners of Star Vending in Southeast. Shortly afterward, Mrs. Pickrel filed a claim for widow's benefits.

State Farm Insurance Co., the insurer for Star Vending, argued that Mrs. Pickrel's separation from her husband disqualified her from benefits.

Clifton Mount, the attorney for State Farm Insurance, said, "If the separation is due to marital discord and the intention is ultimately to be divorced, or there is no intention to resume life as a married couple, that is the situation where the courts in D.C. now will most likely not allow the surviving spouse to collect death benefits."

Until now, Mr. Mount said, the law in the District did not clearly explain when separated spouses could receive benefits under workers' compensation law. "This case makes it very clear what the law is now," he said. He added that the law also would apply to cases where workers are injured, but not killed, on the job, thereby limiting the liability of employers and their insurers.

The Pickrels married in 1980. They entered a formal separation agreement on Feb. 9, 1996, less than a year after Mrs. Pickrel moved out of their home. Two months after the separation agreement, Mr. Pickrel was shot and killed.

State Farm Insurance said the purpose of widow's benefits is to compensate wives for the loss of their husbands' support. Mrs. Pickrel suffered no loss because she was not living with her husband and did not depend on him to support her, the insurer said.

Mrs. Pickrel argued that separation was not the same as divorce. The Pickrels were still married but merely living in separate locations. They continued to communicate with each other and have occasional conjugal relations. On several occasions, Mr. Pickrel loaned his separated wife money to help her pay routine bills. Her name was still listed on their joint bank account and credit card. Mrs. Pickrel also was the sole beneficiary of her husband's will.

The D.C. Workers' Compensation Act defines a widow as the wife of a deceased worker "living with or dependent for support upon the decedent at the time of his death; or living apart for justifiable cause or by reason of his or her desertion at such time," the court said.

The hearing examiner for the D.C. Department of Employment Services agreed with Mrs. Pickrel and initially awarded her benefits. The decision was overturned when State Farm Insurance appealed.

The appellate court said the terms of the Pickrels' separation agreement eliminated Mrs. Pickrel's rights to widow's benefits.

"In the agreement, Mr. and Mrs. Pickrel divided their marital property, provided that each party was responsible for his or her own debts, and waived claims against each other for support," the court said. "Certainly there is no reason why a separated wife who has surrendered all right to look to the husband for support while he is living, should upon his death, receive benefits that are intended to replace in part the support which the husband was providing, or should have been providing."

Judge Stephen Glickman, who wrote the court's opinion, added, "There is simply no other way to read an agreement that unambiguously states that the parties are irreconcilably estranged … "

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