South Coast Framing v. Workers’ Comp. Appeals Board – Death Benefits After Drug Overdose

One of the most common forms of treatment for pain following a work injury is medication. We are often lulled into a false sense of security about the safety of pain medication.
Not only is it highly addictive, but certain combinations can be dangerous too.

Illness or death caused by prescription medication taken in accordance with a doctor’s orders for a work-related injury may be compensable – as much so as the underlying injury that prompted the person to receive the medication. (There could also be grounds for a medical malpractice claim, though that would be an entirely separate matter.)

The case of South Coast Framing v. Workers’ Comp. Appeals Bd., which was recently before the California Supreme Court, illustrates the issue.

According to court records, worker was employed as a carpenter when he fell 10 feet while on-the-job. As a result, he sustained back and neck injuries, as well as a concussion. He sought workers’ compensation benefits and treatment from a physician.

The workers’ compensation doctor prescribed a number of drugs to help teat these injuries. Those drugs included Vicodin (a pain reliever), Neurontin (another type of pain reliever) and Elavil (an antidepressant). Several months later, worker’s personal doctor additionally prescribed Xanax (for anxiety) and Ambien (to help him sleep).

Months later, worker’s wife was unable to rouse him from sleep. He was pronounced dead. An autopsy revealed each of these prescribed drugs in his system, and it was posited the combined effects of four sedatives, in addition to early onset pneumonia, were the cause of death. Two of those “sedatives” had been prescribed by his workers’ compensation doctor.

There was no arguing worker died as a result of the combination of drugs. But as worker’s widow and three minor children sought workers’ compensation death benefits, the issue was which drugs played a role, to what extent and why they were prescribed.

One expert witness testified the combination of drugs he was on “specifically and in combination” had the capacity to cause him to stop breathing. Decedent had experienced periods of “blackouts” prior to his death, and the witness/doctor testified these were likely warning episodes.

However, an expert witness doctor for defense/workers’ compensation insurance company testified it was the combination of Xanax and Ambien – prescribed by decedent’s personal doctor – that resulted in death. However, this witness’ report somewhat conflicted with his actual testimony in that it indicated the workers’ compensation drugs could have played “a small role.”

The workers’ compensation judge awarded death benefits to worker’s family, finding his death was caused by medications he consumed for his covered injury.

Employer appealed, arguing no substantial evidence supported that finding. While the full board appealed, the appellate court reversed.

But the California Supreme Court again reversed, reinstating the finding of the workers’ compensation judge. The appellate court had improperly applied a higher proof burden in this case than what the legislature intended, and there was enough evidence to support the finding that the combination of drugs workers’ compensation doctor prescribed contributed to worker’s death.

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

Additional Resources:
South Coast Framing v. Workers’ Comp. Appeals Bd., May 28, 2015, California Suprem Court

More Blog Entries:
Workers’ Compensation Opt-Out Proposed in South Carolina, May 25, 2015, Greensboro Workers’ Compensation Attorney Blog

Workers’ Compensation Lawsuit Over Pain Killer Addiction, May 31, 2015, Greensboro Work Injury Lawyer Blog

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