Camas mill worker’s widow wins appeal

Court: Clark County woman entitled to additional benefits from Georgia-Pacific

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian port & economy reporter

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A Clark County woman whose husband’s death was linked to his job is entitled to thousands of dollars more per month in surviving spouse benefits, the Washington state Court of Appeals ruled Wednesday.

The court reversed a decision in Clark County Superior Court that had granted Mary Mason the statutory minimum survivor pension rate $185 per month. The lower court had sided with Georgia-Pacific Corp., which argued Mason should receive the minimum because her husband, William, a former millwright at the company’s paper mill in Camas, retired before his lung condition materialized.

But GP was incorrect in asserting that a survivor’s death benefit has the same limitations as a worker’s wage replacement benefit, the appeals court said.

As the Department of Labor and Industries’ found, “employment conditions caused William’s death,” the appeals court said, and the core purpose of the state’s Industrial Insurance Act “is to motivate employers to make workplaces safer by allocating the cost of workplace injuries to the industry that produces them.”

Jill Karmy, attorney for Mary Mason, said her client is happy with the decision. “It’s been a long time coming,” Karmy said.

The case traces its history to a June 1988 claim

William Mason filed for industrial insurance benefits based on a lung condition related to chemical exposure. He was extensively exposed to caustic chemicals, including asbestos and chlorine dioxide.

William, who worked for the paper mill in Camas now owned by GP for more than 35 years until he retired in 1986, died in 2006. His claim was still open at the time.

Karmy said Wednesday’s decision means Mary Mason will receive “well over $2,000” per month instead of the $185 statutory minimum that had been granted by the lower court.

Karmy said the appeals court’s decision will have a positive ripple effect for similar cases, setting a precedent for other claimants and their surviving spouses

GP attorney James Gress said he’d just received notice of the appeals court decision and had yet to discuss with his client whether to appeal.

In April 2007, L&I found that a work-related condition caused William Mason’s death and approved surviving spouse benefits.

L&I later established a surviving spouse pension based on his last day of work wages.

From there, GP filed its first appeal, and the case eventually found its way to the appeals court. L&I joined Mary Mason in appealing the Clark County Superior Court decision.

The state’s Industrial Insurance Act treats death benefits and wage replacement benefits differently, according to the appeals court decision.

Although GP correctly argued that workers who voluntarily retire and who subsequently become disabled aren’t entitled to wage replacement benefits, the appeals court said, the company “overlooks the fact that a worker’s benefit benefits the worker and a survivor’s benefit benefits the survivor.”