SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) – New Mexico’s highest court on Thursday reinstated a workers’ compensation claim brought by the widow of a tribal police officer who died a decade ago while rescuing a drowning boy from the Rio Grande.
The ruling by state Supreme Court is the latest twist in a long-running legal fight waged by the widow of Pojoaque Pueblo Police Officer Kevin Schultz, who was off-duty when he jumped into the river in northern New Mexico to save a 12-year-old boy in August 2002.
Despite the ruling, it’s still not certain that the widow will receive any benefits. The case goes back to the state Court of Appeals to deal with an unresolved legal question.
Schultz, 44, was fishing near the small community of Pilar with a group of children from his church when the boy fell into the water. After pulling the boy from the river, Schultz collapsed in shallow water and drowned.
According to a medical examiner, Schultz may have hit his head on a rock and the injury could have incapacitated him.
Schultz’s widow, Cheryl, unsuccessfully sought workers’ compensation benefits for his death. A workers’ compensation judge concluded in 2007 that her claim was filed too late and that her husband wasn’t performing the duties of his job when he died.
The Court of Appeals then dismissed her appeal. However, the Supreme Court revived the case in 2010, ordering the appeals’ judges to consider the widow’s claim.
Cheryl Schultz lost again when the Court of Appeals concluded she had missed a deadline for filing for workers’ compensation benefits.
The Supreme Court disagreed in its ruling Thursday, saying the claim will be allowed because delays were caused by Kevin Schultz’s employer. The tribal police chief had assured the officer’s widow that the department would take care of the workers’ compensation paperwork, but that didn’t happen.
The justices said, “If an employee entitled to workers’ compensation benefits fails to file a complaint or a claim within the limitation period because the conduct of the employer or insurer reasonably led the employee to believe compensation would be paid, then the employee has a reasonable time thereafter within which to file.”
The case was ordered back again to the Court of Appeals, which must determine whether the officer died “within the course and scope of his employment.”
Cheryl Schultz’s lawyer did not immediately return a telephone message seeking comment.
Before working with Pojoaque police, Kevin Schultz was a deputy with the Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Department.
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