The California Supreme Court has ruled in South Coast Framing, Inc. v. Workers' Compensation Appeals Board that the standard of proximate cause does not apply to workers' compensation death benefit cases. A copy of the court's opinion, which was filed on May 28, 2015, is available at www.courts.ca.gov
Brandon Clark suffered neck and back injuries and a concussion when he fell while working as a carpenter for South Coast Framing, Inc. Clark's workers' compensation doctor prescribed drugs to treat Clark, including an antidepressant and pain relievers. Clark's personal doctor prescribed an anti-anxiety medicine and a sleep aid to treat Clark.
Nine months after Clark's fall at work, his wife was not able to waken Clark. He was pronounced dead at the scene. The autopsy surgeon concluded that Clark's death was accidental and attributed the death to the combined toxic effect of the sedating drugs.
Clark's wife and his children filed for workers' compensation death benefits. The qualified medical examiner (QME) reported that the drugs prescribed by Clark's personal doctor caused sedation significant enough to cause Clark's death. The QME doctor concluded that the drugs prescribed by the workers' compensation doctor were insufficient to be the sole or predominant cause of Clark's death and testified that those drugs had a "minimum level of causation."
The workers' compensation judge awarded death benefits to the family. The Workers' Compensation Appeals Board (WCAB) decided to adopt the judge's decision.
The California Court of Appeal reversed the WCAB's decision. The Court of Appeal held that the awarding of death benefits was not justified because the drugs prescribed by the workers' compensation doctor were not the proximate cause of Clark's death. The court reasoned that although the drugs prescribed by the workers' compensation doctor played a role in Clark's death, they were insufficient to prove proximate causation because they were not sufficiently significant or a material factor.
The California Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeal's decision. The Supreme Court disagreed with the Court of Appeal's analysis. The Supreme Court ruled, "This analysis fails to honor the difference between tort law principles and the application of the workers' compensation scheme. Tort liability only attaches if the defendant's negligence was a significant or substantial factor in causing injury. In the workers' compensation system, the industrial injury need only be a contributing cause to the disability."
The Supreme Court pointed out that California cases have established that an employee is entitled to workers' compensation benefits if a new or aggravated injury results from medical treatment for a work-related injury and that the awarding of benefits requires only a finding that the prescribed workers' compensation drugs were a contributing cause of the injury or death.
In this case, there was substantial evidence to support the workers' compensation judge's finding that the drugs prescribed by the workers' compensation doctor contributed to Clark's death and thus the awarding of death benefits was justified. The Supreme Court explained that once the judge resolved the claim, the Court of Appeal was not free to reweigh the evidence to determine whether the drugs were the proximate cause of Clark's death.
The Supreme Court concluded, "[W]e may not break from the long-standing precedent to apply a higher proximate cause standard to death cases when the Legislature has not seen fit to do so."