April 2017 Tennessee Supreme Court Rules Death by Overdose Not Work Related InKilburn v. Granite State Insurance Company, the injured worker sustained several different injuries in a motor vehicle accident. These injuries were accepted as compensable and the injured worker received authorized medical treatment. His medical treatment included spine surgery and the prescription of pain medications, including oxycodone. Six months following surgery, the injured worker died due to an overdose of oxycodone combined with alcohol.
The injured worker’s widow argued that the death was caused by the work injury and therefore should result in the payment of death benefits. Even though the proof at trial established that the injured worker violated doctor’s orders by taking more opioid medication than he was prescribed and by consuming alcohol while taking this medication, the widow asserted that this was due to the severe pain and anxiety from his injury.
The trial court agreed with the widow’s position, ruling that the death was a direct and natural consequence of his work injury and awarded death benefits to the widow. The Tennessee Supreme Court disagreed, finding that the injured worker’s violation of doctor’s orders constituted an independent intervening event which broke the chain of causation between the work injury and the death by overdose. Thus, the judgment of the trial court was reversed and death benefits were denied.
While this was an important victory for the employer inKilburn, Tennessee employers should take note that the Court declined to create an across-the-board rule that an overdose will always constitute an independent intervening event. To the contrary, theKilburn court stated in a footnote that it was not concluding that an individual can never prove that an overdose is the direct and natural result of the original compensable injury when a dependency or addiction to narcotics develops. The Court merely concluded that the specific facts and testimony presented in the Kilburn case failed to establish that link. So, theKilburn decision does leave that door open in future cases, e.g. where an employee overdoses but there is no showing that doctor’s orders were violated.
It is also important for Tennessee employers to remember that theKilburn case was decided under pre-July 1, 2014 law. To the extent that the pre-July 1, 2014 law may be contrary to the Tennessee workers’ compensation reform law enacted for injuries on or after July 1, 2014, theKilburn case would have limited precedential value. However, it could still be used as persuasive authority for a court deciding a similar case for an injury on or after July 1, 2014. Since the “new” law actually has a stricter causation standard than the “old” law that Kilburn was using, it might actually be harder now for an injured worker to prevail on this issue.