Judy DeGroot, whose 25-year-old son and his best friend were killed in a construction trench cave-in in Annandale two years ago, thought she had found a sympathetic audience when she appeared before a Virginia legislative subcommittee last week.
The members of the panel had appeared shocked to hear she had received only a $1,000 check from the state workman's compensation program after her son Michael's death because he had left no dependents. In protest, she said, she has never cashed the check. And after only one insurance lobbyist rose to oppose a bill to raise the death benefits to $25,000, she returned to her Falls Church home hopeful the legislation she had pleaded for would pass.
DeGroot was absent today when the House Labor and Commerce Committee heeded a much different plea from a lobbyist for the influential Virginia Manufacturers Association and killed the bill by an 8-to-7 vote.
The lobbyist, former Del. Walther Fidler, and the bill's leading legislative foe, Del. William Wilson, cited" philosophical differences" in opposing the proposal, saying it would change the principle behind workman's compensation. DeGroot and Fairfax County Supervisor Audrey Moore, who came along last week to support the bill, said the vote was a clear example of the General Assembly's traditional deference to big business at the expense of individuals.
"It was a very callous treatment," said Moore. "What is a human life worth? $1,000? I just can't believe they could be so unfair."
At issue is the workman's comp program, which was set up to guarantee that an employe hurt on the job would be paid for his medical expenses and for time lost because of an injury even if he were at fault. In return, the worker wavies his right to sue an employer whose negligence might have to led to the accident.
For a worker killed on the job, the state program guarantees his dependents will receive about two-thirds of his salary. But for those workers, such as Michael DeGroot, who left no dependents, the only payment under Virginia law is a $1,000 check for burial fees.
Fidler and George Weston, a workman's compensation insurance lobbyist, argued that raising the payment to $25,000 would turn the program into a life insurance program. The subcommittee, chaired by Wilson, agreed to cut the proposed amount to $10,000. When Wilson argued against the bill before the full committee, which voted it down despite the fact that it was sponsored by committee chairman Robert Washington (D-Norfolk).
Judy DeGroot has argued that families should have the right to sue in cases of gross negligence, but legislators have in the past refused even to consider such legislation.