Workers’ Compensation Benefits Denied to Widow of Worker Who Died of Overdose

The Tennessee Supreme Court denied workers’ compensation benefits to the widow of a worker who died of an opioid overdose after taking medication he’d been prescribed following a work injury. pills

This ruling runs contrary to what a number of other state courts have decided, and was actually a reversal of the trial court consensus in Tennessee.

Opioid addiction and overdose has fast become a rising problem for employees and workers’ compensation insurance carriers. Many are discovering that the powerful painkillers used to treat acute and chronic pain following a job-related injury are highly addictive – and potentially deadly. Injured workers grappling with pain are prescribed Vicodin and OxyContin, Percocet and morphine.

U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics estimate nearly 3 million private industry workers and some 750,000 public sector employees suffered workplace injuries in 2015, and more than half of those resulted in time away from work. CompPharma reports that $1.5 billion has been spent on opioids by workers’ compensation insurers in one single recent year. In a recent survey of insurers, addiction and opioids were cited as the No. 1 concern.

In the Tennessee Supreme Court’s ruling, worker in question was a trim carpenter who was severely injured in a motor vehicle accident in the course of employment. As a result, he suffered fractured vertebrae and disc herniation that necessitated surgery and caused him intense pain.

In fact, his pain was so severe it prevented him from going back to work.

At a doctor’s appointment six months after his surgery, his physician noted he was concerned about the patient’s consumption of alcohol while taking medication. The worker conceded he felt the medication was no longer effective, and he was often taking two at a time. His doctor recommended weaning him off the medication and trying alternative treatments. Patient even signed an agreement saying he would control his use of narcotic medications as directed by his physician and that even if the medication were inadequate, he would have to call before adjusting the dosage.

Family members later said the worker supplemented his medication with alcohol because it helped with his pain when he skipped doses of the medicine, which he did because he feared he would run out.

A few weeks after signing that agreement, worker’s wife found him unresponsive in his bed. His cause of death was cited as overdose from oxycodone, with contributing factors being alcohol use, tobacco use and hypertension. He was only 40-years-old.

Decedent’s wife then sought workers’ compensation death benefits as a result of her husband’s passing, arguing the work-related crash led to his needing medication, which ultimately led to his death. Trial court agreed and awarded workers’ compensation benefits to the widow.

Employer appealed, arguing the worker’s consumption of alcohol was an independent intervening cause of death. The case was initially referred to an appellate panel, but the state supreme court transferred the case.

Plaintiff argued her husband’s death was a direct and natural result of the work injury, and that despite her husband’s overuse of the medications, his faculties were affected by severe pain and depression directly resulting from the work injury.

The state supreme court reversed, agreeing with employer stance that worker’s use of alcohol was an intervening cause in his death.

Contact the Carolina injury lawyers at the Lee Law Offices by calling 800-887-1965.

Additional Resources:

Kilburn v. Granite State Insurance Co., April 10, 2017, Tennessee Supreme Court

More Blog Entries:

N.C. Employer to Pay Workers’ Compensation, Pay Penalty for Denial, April 12, 2017, Workers’ Compensation Lawyer Blog

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