Willard v. VP Builders – NC Appeals Court Upholds Worker Death Benefit Ruling

The North Carolina Court of Appeals recently upheld an award of workers’ compensation death benefits to a widow whose husband had died as a result of pain medication prescribed following surgery to a crushed thumb, which he’d suffered while on the job.
The key issue in this case was whether the deceased had consumed the medication in a manner contrary to what was prescribed. What the commission found – and what the appellate court ultimately upheld – was that there was no proof that he had. Therefore, his widow was entitled to death benefits, as his death was a direct result of the treatment he’d undergone for a work-related injury.

Charlotte worker’s compensation lawyers note that this case highlights the fact that not all cases are straightforward matters, but it can be worthwhile to thoroughly explore the legal options with an experienced attorney.

Here, the case first began to unfold in the fall of 2008. It was at that time that the construction worker suffered an admittedly compensable injury to his left hand. We don’t know the exact details of the accident, except that a doctor diagnosed him with complex regional pain syndrome and a crush injury involving his left thumb. As a direct result of that injury, his doctor ultimately recommended surgery, which was performed early the following summer.

Subsequently, the doctor’s physician’s assistant prescribed the worker with Vicodin to help manage the pain. After a couple months, the PA, under the doctor’s orders, authorized a prescription for methadone, as a means to transition the patient off Vicodin and, in the long-term, off pain medication completely.

These medications were covered and paid for under the workers’ compensation plan.

The day after the prescription for methadone was written, the worker and his wife drove to the pharmacy to pick it up. He took a dosage at that time and then was dropped off at home, while his wife went to run some errands alone. She spoke to him twice during her trip, but a third call went unanswered. She said the first conversation he sounded fine. During the second conversation, he told her he’d taken another dose of his medication, and she noted his voice sounded slower than usual. When he didn’t answer the third call, she returned home. She found him slumped over the kitchen table. He was dead.

The widow would later file a claim for workers’ compensation death benefits. The employer filed a form denying coverage, citing N.C. Gen. Stat. 97-12, which indicates that compensation is not to be paid if the death was proximately caused by his being under the influence of a controlled substance, where such substance wasn’t prescribed by a practitioner.

There were multiple doctors and other expert witnesses brought to testify on both sides. Ultimately, what the court determined was that if the plaintiff attorney attacked the official toxicology report, then two other doctors testifying on behalf of the employer could be brought in to rebut that testimony.

However, all of the doctors agreed that because of the variability of the way the body processes methadone, none could say with any certainty that the worker had taken the drug in a dosage that would conclusively indicate he’d varied from the prescribed amount.

The commission denied numerous requests from the employer to reconsider barring testimony from the two doctors unless this issue came up, which it did not.

In the end, the commission found that the employer failed to establish the worker had taken the medication in a manner contrary to its prescribed use, and further awarded his widow death benefits for a minimum of 400 weeks, plus reimbursement for funeral expenses and attorneys’ fees.

The employer appealed. What the North Carolina Court of Appeals ruled was that while the commission erred in declining to hear testimony from the two witness doctors the employer presented, it was not an error that would result in a reversal of opinion. The court reasoned that the opinions offered by those doctors in their depositions did not provide any indication that they could offer opinions indicating the worker had improperly taken his prescribed medication. As such, the plaintiff award was upheld.

If you have been injured at work, contact the Lee Law Offices at 800-887-1965.

Additional Resources:
Willard v. VP Builders Inc. et al., May 6, 2014, North Carolina Court of Appeals

More Blog Entries:
Conley v. Alaska Communications – Third Party Lawsuits Following Work Injuries, May 24, 2014, Charlotte Workers’ Compensation Lawyer Blog

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