Fallen officer’s common-law wife fights for death benefits
Risk pool officials challenge claim for compensation after fatal crash
The common-law wife of a Pearland police officer killed by a drunken driver must prove for a third time that she is legally entitled to receive death benefits from that city’s workers’ compensation fund.
The state association that handles such compensation has filed a lawsuit seeking to block payment of death benefits on behalf of Officer Endy Ekpanya, killed on the job when his vehicle was struck nearly head-on by a drunken driver, Amber Willemsen, on June 12, 2016. She had just left her job as a stripper at The Ritz on the Gulf Freeway when she drove her car on the wrong side of FM 518, striking Ekpanya’s patrol car.
Attorneys from the Texas Municipal League Intergovernmental Risk Pool are seeking a judge’s ruling on whether Lucy Lugo is entitled to the benefits. Last March, a benefit review officer ruled Lugo was the common-law wife and legal beneficiary of Ekpanya.
An appeals panel also sided with Lugo, saying she presented sufficient evidence to prove she was Ekpanya’s common-law wife as defined by state law.
Among the evidence presented by Lugo was a funeral program listing her as Ekpanya’s wife and several letters testifying that the couple was living together as husband and wife and were planning a wedding. One letter was signed by Pearland Police officer Davis Vo and another was signed by Ekpanya’s mother, according to the March 31 ruling by the Texas Department of Insurance Division of Workers’ Compensation.
However, risk-pool officials are now appealing and have filed a lawsuit against Lugo in Brazoria County District Court, arguing in court documents that she had “erroneously been determined to be a beneficiary of a deceased former employee of the city.”
Jennifer O’Sullivan, the risk pool’s attorney and assistant manager of subrogation, wrote in an email that because it “uses public funds to pay workers’ compensation benefits, TMLIRP owes a duty to its governmental members and to the public to responsibly administer those funds.”
Texas law states that for an informal or “commonlaw” marriage to be legally recognized, three elements must exist. In Lugo’s case, a state official ruled all three to be true, according to the March ruling.
“Ms. Lugo’s testimony and the evidence convincingly showed that Ms. Lugo and Mr. Ekpanya agreed to be married, lived together as husband and wife, and represented to others that they were married,” hearing officer Jacquelyn Coleman wrote.
Representing Lugo in the Brazoria County appeal is Pearland attorney Greg Hill, who is also a former Pearland city council member.
In an email, Hill wrote the case will be reviewed and decided by state District Judge Pat Sebesta of Brazoria County.
“It’s just simply about money for (City of Pearland/TML), despite the fact that two separate judges, and multiple witnesses, and much evidence has already shown that Lucy and Endy were in fact married under common law,” Hill said.
Hill is also representing Lugo and other family members in a wrongful death lawsuit brought against Willemsen and the owners of the strip club where she worked.
‘Have it both ways’
Willemsen, 40, a former assistant principal in Clear Creek ISD, was out on bail on a drug charge when her Chrysler 200 sedan was involved in the crash on FM 518 near Liberty Drive.
Prosecutors said at her trial last month that the officer “took the hit for another citizen who was coming behind him.”
Willemsen had violated club policy by drinking heavily during her shift. On Aug. 5, a jury convicted her of intoxication manslaughter of a peace officer and sentenced her to 32 years in prison.
Hill now says the risk pool has essentially jumped into the middle of the wrongful death lawsuit via recently filed court documents in hopes of claiming a portion of any benefits paid to Lugo if the case is settled in favor of the family.
“Their purpose there is to try to receive subrogation (reimbursement) if they lose in Sebesta’s court,” Hill wrote. “They want to have it both ways — not have to pay Lucy money in death benefits, and get paid back, if they do have to pay her.”
The choice to seek judicial review was made without input from Mayor Tom Reid, the City Council or other Pearland officials, according to city attorney Darin Coker.
In her written statement, risk-pool attorney O’Sullivan argues that seeking to block death benefit payments to Lugo and attempting to recapture any benefits paid to her from a possible settlement from the wrongful death lawsuit is part of her agency’s duty to taxpayers.
The risk pool “also works on behalf of the public to seek reimbursement of workers’ compensation benefits from third parties responsible for the employee’s death where appropriate,” O’Sullivan wrote. “By seeking reimbursement through subrogation, TMLIRP works to shift the financial burden from the public to responsible third parties.”
A date has not yet been set for the appeal trial.
Lucy Lugo, wife of fallen Pearland police officer Endy Ekpanya, holds their son, Julian, after a 2016 funeral service at Grace Community Church.