Archive for March, 2016

Alcohol Poisoning Death Caused by Psyche Inj. Caused by Ortho Injury Compensable

March 4th, 2016 No comments

Hello dear readers!

In the immortal words of the little-known poet Rebecca Black, “it’s Friday, Friday.”

And, as your humble blogger is certainly destined to rendezvous with a sip or two of scotch later in the evening, why not bring to my beloved readers’ attention the case of Prouty (Deceased)v. City of Stockton, a recent writ denied case that even awarded attorney fees to the applicant’s attorney!

The deceased Mr. Prouty’s family filed a claim for workers’ compensation benefits, after his unfortunate death due to alcohol use.  The basic facts are that Mr. Prouty sustained an orthopedic injury, which resulted in a psychiatric injury, which lead to alcohol abuse and overuse, which resulted in his death.

Although Mr. Prouty reportedly had alcohol abuse issues prior to his injury, the WCJ found that his wife testified credibly that the problems were “less than they became after the physical injury.”  One doctor opined that the physical injury triggered a relapse into alcoholism, which resulted in Mr. Prouty’s death.

While challenging the doctors’ opinions as failing to meet the threshold of substantial evidence for failing to take a proper history, defendant also raised the intoxication defense of Labor Code section 3600(a)(4), arguing that, to the extent the death resulted from intoxication, it was barred by the Labor Code, reasoning that, whereas other compensable consequence cases include a gradual alcohol abuse that results in organ failure, Mr. Prouty’s one-day binge resulting in alcohol poisoning and death should be barred.

On reconsideration, the WCAB commissioners noted that, while the intoxication defense might bar an injury, the injury here was a cumulative trauma to the back and alcohol was not involved.  Thus, the death was proximately caused by the cumulative trauma, and the intoxication defense would not apply.  Reconsideration was denied.

But what about a defense theory of suicide?  (Not to imply that this was suicide, but more of a question of the viability of such a defense).  Labor Code section 3600(a)(6) serves to bar claims where the employee has “willfully and deliberately caused his or her own death.”  If you are drinking, at one point, so much so that it causes your death… why can’t this be considered death by suicide?

Well, to qualify as a suicide, and thus non-compensable, the language of the statute requires the defendant to prove that the death was willfully and deliberately caused by an employee’s efforts to bring about his or her own death.  That’s a high burden to meet without such things as (1) a suicide note; (2) a history of suicidal thoughts or plan as related to a mental health physician; or (3) some other evidence that this was a plan to kill one’s self.

The other difficulty here is that even if this were a suicide, applicant appears to have put out enough of a foundation to argue that even if this was suicide, the suicide was at least partially caused by the industrial psychiatric condition, which, in turn, was caused by the industrial back injury.

It’s obviously a very tragic turn of events for Mr. Prouty and his family.  But, for those of us on the defense side, it also provides a reminder that our job is not done just because there is a future medical award.  Future medical care should be monitored for signs of deteriorating condition, especially when substance abuse and psychiatric conditions are implicated.

Nurse case managers are a great help in getting such things resolved because they alert the defense as to when additional care is needed.  Primary treatment reports also should keep an eye on substance abuse conditions, whether alcohol, prescription medication, or illegal drugs, and make sure applicants get weaned, get help, and avoid the horrible consequences such as those seen in the Prouty case.

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