Sometimes, there are multiple possibilities for what might have caused an illness, injury or death. When pursuing a workers’ compensation claim for benefits, alternative theories of causation presented by your company’s insurer could harm your claim. It’s imperative to provide ample evidence of your position in order to overcome these alternative theories.
While in the criminal justice system, the standard of proof is “beyond a reasonable doubt,” in workers’ compensation cases, the standard is “with a reasonable degree of medical certainty” or “the greater weight of the evidence.” It’s essentially the court’s measure of credible proof on one side versus the amount of credible proof on the other. It’s based on the persuasiveness or believability of the evidence, so it’s important to make sure expert witnesses are amply certified and experienced and their research is fully supported.
It also means mounting an effective challenge to any alternative theories posed by the other side, casting doubt on their conjectures.
In the recent case of Across Big Sky Flow Testing, LLC v. WSI, this was especially important to the survivors of a deceased worker found dead on the job. The primary question was did the decedent die of natural causes while at work (a coincidence), or did his work-related duties cause or contribute to his untimely death.
The answer was not cut-and-dried, and as our Asheville workers’ compensation lawyers often encounter, it once again came down to a the greater weight of the evidence.
According to North Dakota Supreme Court records, decedent was stationed at an oil tank site in that state and was in charge of gauging the oil tanks twice an hour. He sometimes had to switch the tanks and when they were full, was in charge of requesting a truck to come get the oil. Around midnight on the date in question, another worker was called to check on a tank monitored by decedent, as there was an automatic warning of a high tank level. The man found his co-worker lying dead next to a tank cover. His last logging had been two hours earlier.
An investigation by the sheriff’s office found no evidence of huffing or illegal drug use. An investigation by the Occupational Safety & Health Administration indicated the company didn’t violate any health or safety standards, and there hadn’t been any exposure to dangerous chemicals. However, there were high levels of petroleum vapors in his system, and an independent medical examiner ruled his death to have been caused by poisoning due to inhaling petroleum vapors from the storage tanks.
Dependents filed an action for workers’ compensation death benefits, which were ultimately awarded by an administrative law judge, who found the greater weight of evidence suggested worker’s death arose out of in and the course of his employment.
The company appealed, and the district court affirmed. The company appealed again to the state supreme court. The court noted it had to affirm the earlier ruling unless it was not in accordance with the law, violated some constitutional right of the appellant, failed to comply with agency procedures, denied appellant a fair hearing or the facts were not supported by a preponderance of the evidence or findings of fact.
Defendant company asserted there was no evidence to support the conclusion plaintiff died as a result of inhaling hydrocarbon vapors from the tank he was monitoring. The mere fact that he inhaled the vapors, the company argued, didn’t mean that’s what he died from.
However, the state supreme court pointed out there was no dispute decedent had a build-up of hydro-chemicals in his blood and lungs. The company argued the build-up was butane, most probably from decedent purposely huffing chemicals because the ambient air around decedent would not have been concentrated enough to have caused him harm.
But as the administrative law judge noted defendant’s expert witness was not a medical doctor, but a doctor of pharmacy, and his conclusions were given lesser weight than those of the independent medical examiner and the medical doctors testifying on behalf of decedent’s survivors.
In this case, the high court determined, there was adequate reasoning supported by the weight of the evidence to back the administrative law judge’s findings. Thus, the award of benefits to decedent’s survivors was affirmed.
If you have been injured at work, contact the Lee Law Offices at 800-887-1965.
Across Big Sky Flow Testing, LLC v. WSI, December 2014, North Dakota Suprem Court
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