FORT BEND COUNTY (KTRK) --Fort Bend County is suing the widow and children of a sheriff's deputy who died five years ago in the line of duty.
Deputy J.D. Norsworthy was critically injured December 27, 2010, after swerving to avoid traffic on his way to back up a fellow officer. He hit a tree on FM 762 near Benton Road and flipped his patrol car. Days later, he died.
In the time since Norsworthy's death the county has never tried to recover reimbursement for his medical bills or lost wages. Only now, after Norsworthy's daughter Kaitlyn has settled with the party deemed liable for the wreck, has the county sued Kaitlyn, her brother and her mother.
"Why would you make it even worse? Theres no words for it. It's just wrong," said Kaitlyn Norsworthy.
She was 13 years old when her father was killed. Five years later, Kaitlyn says she still has trouble with PTSD because she and her mother happened to drive up upon the wreck moments after it occurred. The images still haunt her.
"You know, but you don't want to believe it," she said.
According to the suit, Fort Bend claims it "has been deprived" and "is entitled to the first monies paid by any third party." It lists that amount at nearly $300,000.
"We're obligated to file that suit to make reasonable recovery," said Fort Bend County Judge Bob Hebert.
He knows it may not be a popular decision.
"It puts us in an unusual predicament but we have to look to the taxpayers first and protect their money if at all possible," Hebert added.
Fort Bend County is self-insured. In a statement to Eyewitness News, the county says they are only looking to recover the portion of its payout provided by workers comp from the third party deemed responsible.
"Fort Bend County has a statutory responsibility to be reimbursed from the responsible third parties for the tax payer money paid to beneficiaries," the county said in a statement. "These responsibilities are established by Texas law as an obligation on claimants, beneficiaries, responsible third parties and their attorneys to protect the County's right to reimbursement, rather than allow any double recovery by beneficiaries."
The county says they have provided and continue to support the Norsworthy's as workers' compensation beneficiaries.
Kaitlyn and her mother are stunned. Melissa Norsworthy said she and J.D. were to celebrate their 20th anniversary the year he was killed. She calls the county's suit hypocritical.
"We don't understand why it is coming to this. Why have we reached this point, I think its disrespectful," she said. "It's a slap in the face."
The attorney representing the Norsworthy's says there was a statute of limitations which prohibits the county from filing the suit against the family. That expired after two years.
Full statement from Fort Bend County:
Fort Bend County has a deep concern for the well-being of Deputy J. D. Norsworthy's widow and children as they continue to deal with the tragedy of the sudden loss of a husband and father. Fort Bend County has provided and continues to provide support to the family as workers' compensation beneficiaries.
The intention of the County in this case, and any other subrogation case, is only to recover the portion of its payouts provided by worker's comp from the third party deemed responsible. Fort Bend County has a statutory responsibility to be reimbursed from the responsible third parties for the tax payer money paid to beneficiaries. These responsibilities are established by Texas law as an obligation on claimants, beneficiaries, responsible third parties and their attorneys to protect the County's right to reimbursement, rather than allow any double recovery by beneficiaries.
Replenishment of workers' compensation payments once a responsible party is determined is a standard process under subrogation law, and is normally calculated at the time the suit is filed and included as a portion of settlements in most cases. The attorney for a family member notified the County of a possible settlement in a lawsuit against a third party and asked what amount would be owed to the County under its statutory lien rights. Prior to that notification, the County was not aware of any settlement a beneficiary made with any responsible third party. Our intervention is an attempt to seek reimbursement of our tax payers' cost from the party that caused the accident.
First responders are the lifeline of the community, spending days and nights protecting the lives and property of its citizens. The loss of a deputy in the line of duty is a great loss to the county, its citizens and more importantly, their families. In this case the county is looking to responsible parties for reimbursement of benefits paid to the family.
County Judge Bob Hebert said, "Given the deep respect I hold for all county employees, and especially our law enforcement officers and other first responders, I am distressed that our action is being styled by some as an attempt to take money that rightfully belongs to widows and orphans. Nothing could be further from the truth. We routinely recover payment of Workers' Compensation and Group Medical benefits from third parties liable for those injuries. The timing of notice that negotiations were underway and the very short fuse given by the court to enter a pleading required the unusual step of naming the beneficiaries as well as the plaintiff's attorneys and the responsible third party. Our goal, as stated above, remains to be reimbursed by the responsible third party"