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Desal worker's widow loses WorkCover payments

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WorkCover has wound back to almost zero its weekly compensation payments to the widow of a worker killed during the construction of  Adelaide’s desalination plant.

The payments, set at $295 per week back in September 2010, have been reduced to just $11 in a decision the widow’s lawyer says “penalises the prudent”.

Brett Fritsch died in July 2010 at the age of 35 when a 1.8-tonne steel beam fell onto him from a crane’s “soft sling” during construction of the plant at Port Stanvac.

His partner Deborah Athans and their son Ryan , now 8, were awarded weekly payments from September 2010 plus a lump sum.

She had also received a superannuation and life insurance payment and donations from her partner’s union (the CFMEU) and construction consortium Adelaide Aqua.

Athans used the lump sums to pay off her mortgage.

WorkCover then reviewed her situation and concluded last December that because she no longer had a mortgage, she could meet her living expenses out of her wages from a part-time job at TAFE.

In a court challenge to WorkCover’s decision, Athans argued that it was unfair for a person who has lost a partner upon whom they were financially dependent to have his or her weekly payments reduced because they had wisely invested the money paid to them.

The case, heard by Judge Brian Gilchrist in the Worker’s Compensation Tribunal, could only test whether WorkCover had the legal power to review the payments – not whether their action was fair.

“WorkCover was entitled to adjust the weekly payments payable to Ms Athans in the manner in which it did,” he concluded.

“I therefore confirm the various WorkCover determinations that are the subject of this dispute.”

Athan’s lawyer Steven Dolphin told InDaily he would be appealing the decision.

“This is a law that has the perverse result of penalising the prudent and rewarding the profligate,” he said.

“It’s a law where WorkCover gives with one hand and then takes away with the other.

“If my client had squandered the lump sum money on the pokies, she would still be getting the weekly payments, but she didn’t so they take away her weekly payments.

“This decision just prolongs what’s been a very painful process for Deb.”

It’s another blow to the family of the deceased worker after a decision by SafeWorkSA in 2012 not to prosecute the construction consortium Adelaide Aqua.

Charges were instead laid against the crane company Ferro Con, which had already gone into administration.

Brett Fritsch’s mother, Charmaine Ferraro, told media at the time that she felt betrayed by the state government agency and accused them of failing to properly investigate the death.

“I feel like I have been used and we have been strung along; I am totally devastated,” she told The Australian.

“It is hard not to be suspicious that this is a big cover-up.

“There have been three deaths, hundreds of injuries and no responsibility taken by anyone and none of the families have had any closure or answers or justice.”

Ferro Con and its director Paolo Maione pleaded guilty to the charges. The company and Maione were fined  $200,000 each for “safety breaches that resulted in the death of a 35-year-old worker at the Adelaide Desalination Plant in 2010”.

Magistrate Stephen Lieschke ordered Maione to pay $20,000 in compensation to the family of Brett Fritsch.

The magistrate also criticised Maione because he had taken out an insurance policy that indemnified him against criminal penalties.

“Maione has taken positive steps to avoid having to take most of the legal consequences of his conduct,” he said.

“These actions have undermined the court’s sentencing powers by negating the principles of both specific and general deterrence.

“The message his actions send to employers is that, with insurance cover for criminal penalties, there may be little consequence for very serious offending – even offending with fatal consequences.”

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