Gas Exposure Death Deemed Compensable Despite Controversial Lab Results
Republished with permission from Alabama Workers Comp Blawg
On January 13, 2012, the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals published its ruling in the case of ATI Alldyne v. Wiseheart. Gary Wiseheart was a mechanic who worked at ATI's metal extraction plant in Huntsville, Alabama. On December 7, 2008, Wiseheart was allegedly exposed to hydrogen sulfide gas and later died. Wiseheart's widow brought suit against ATI for death benefits and funeral expenses under the Alabama Workers' Compensation Act.
At the center of the controversy were laboratory test results that purportedly showed significantly elevated levels of thiosulfate in Wiseheart's urine on the day of the incident. ATI objected to the admissibility of the lab test results on the grounds that no chain of custody had been established between the hospital where the urine sample was collected and the Pennsylvania lab where the sample was tested. ATI also objected to the deposition testimony of the medical examiner who based her opinion that Wiseheart had died as a result of exposure to the gas, in part, on the lab test results. The trial Court admitted both the lab test results and the deposition of the medical examiner, and found that Wiseheart suffered an accidental exposure to hydrogen sulfide gas which caused or contributed to his death. On appeal, ATI asserted that the trial Court erred in admitting the lab test results and the deposition of the medical examiner and that it also erred in finding that exposure to the gas caused or contributed to Wiseheart's death.
The Court of Appeals noted that even without the disputed lab test results, substantial evidence existed to support the trial Court's findings that Wiseheart was exposed to hydrogen sulfide gas and that the exposure caused or contributed to his death. The medical examiner testified that she had not based her conclusion, that Wiseheart had died from exposure to the gas, on the disputed lab test results alone. Both ATI's and Wiseheart's expert medical witnesses testified that Wiseheart exhibited physical findings consistent with exposure to the gas, although both experts also acknowledged that the same physical findings could result from death by other means. The Court also pointed to other circumstantial factors, such as the undisputed testimony that plant operators reported a rotten egg-like smell prior to finding Wiseheart unconscious and that Wiseheart felt fine only hours prior to being found lying on the floor of the plant. Additionally, ATI's medical expert acknowledged that even if Wiseheart was not exposed to high enough levels of the gas to kill him, he may have been exposed to high enough levels to cause distressful physical symptoms that could cause cardiac arrest.
The Court acknowledged that ATI presented substantial evidence at trial indicating that Wiseheart did not die from hydrogen sulfide poisoning. However, since the trial Court's findings were supported by substantial evidence, the Court of Appeals declined to reverse the trial Court's judgment simply because it may have decided the facts differently than the trial Court.
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