Pennsylvania Record

Friday, April 10, 2020

Court affirms family of workplace-stabbing victim is entitled to death benefits

State Court

By Karen Kidd | Feb 17, 2020

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HARRISBURG — The family of a 25-year-old man stabbed to death by a co-worker at a meat processing plant is eligible for Workers' Compensation death benefits because the man's employer failed to prove his killing was not work-related, a state court recently affirmed.

In its 18-page opinion issued Jan. 24, a Commonwealth Court three-judge panel affirmed an earlier Workers' Compensation Appeal Board ruling that said the family was entitled to death benefits. The board ruled that JBS USA Holdings, Inc., wholly owned by a Brazilian food processing company that operates the rendering plant in Montgomery County, did not prove that Danny Vasquez's fatal stabbing by co-worker Peter Atem was not work-related.

Judge Renée Cohn Jubelirer wrote the opinion in which judges Patricia McCullough and Ellen Ceisler concurred.

Vasquez was stabbed to death in February 2015 outside the JBS meat-packing plant near Souderton. Atem, a Sudanese refugee and former child-soldier, was convicted in Vasquez's killing the following June and later received a life sentence.

Vasquez's family sought workers compensation death benefits and the Workers Compensation Appeal Board affirmed a decision by a Workers Compensation Judge to grant the family's fatal claim petition. The judge also determined that Atem's attack had been work-related, despite JBS USA Holdings' claims of "personal animus." 

The board reversed the judge's ruling in reference to one of the children in the family who was not Vasquez's biological child, though Vasquez had claimed the child on his income tax return. The board rule that child was not entitled to death benefits.

The company and family had appealed the board's ruling.

"We acknowledge that this case presents a tragic set of facts," the opinion said. "However, neither party met its burden of proof. Employer did not successfully rebut the presumption that decedent's stabbing death, which occurred on employer's premises during work hours, was caused by reasons personal to Mr. Atem."

Vazquez's family also did not "establish sufficient evidence" to overturn the board's decision not to award benefit on behalf of the child he claimed as a dependent on his income tax return but who was not biologically his, the opinion said. "For the foregoing reasons, we discern no error and, accordingly, affirm the board’s order."

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Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court