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Widow of exec who died after Brazil trip eligible for comp: Appeals court

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The widow of a company executive who died from meningitis after returning from a business trip to Brazil can receive workers compensation death benefits because his illness was likely caused by his travels, even though he was only in Brazil briefly, an Illinois appeals court has ruled.

Craig Bauer was president and chief operating officer of Omron Electronic Components L.L.C., a Hoffman Estates, Illinois-based manufacturer. He took a business trip to China and Japan in June 2006, returned to Illinois to work for one week, then took another business trip to Sao Paolo, Brazil, court records show.

Mr. Bauer stayed in Brazil for a day and a half, and returned home, according to court filings. His wife, E. Belinda Bauer, said Mr. Bauer looked pale when he returned home from Brazil, and that he felt very tired and achy.

The next day, Mr. Bauer developed “little black spots” on his face and arms, and Ms. Bauer drove him to the hospital, records show. His condition continued to worsen, and Mr. Bauer died a day later.

Mr. Bauer was diagnosed after his death with Neisseria meningitides and Waterhouse-Friderichsen syndrome, which is adrenal failure caused by a severe infection, records show. Doctors who testified for a workers comp claim filed by Mr. Bauer's wife said there is increased prevalence of Neisseria meningitides in Sao Paolo compared with other parts of the world, and that the disease is transmitted through airborne respiratory droplets.

One doctor also testified that he believed that Mr. Bauer had a respiratory infection prior to his trip to Brazil that affected Mr. Bauer's immune system and allowed him to develop symptoms of Neisseria meningitides after visiting Brazil, according to filings.

However, at least two other medical experts noted that Neisseria meningitides has an incubation period of two to 10 days, and that Mr. Bauer could have contracted the disease prior to his trip to Brazil, records show.

An Illinois workers comp arbitrator denied workers comp benefits to Ms. Bauer, saying that she failed to prove that Mr. Bauer's illness arose out of his business travel to Brazil, records show.

However, the Illinois Workers' Compensation Commission reversed that decision, finding that Ms. Bauer provided a preponderance of evidence that Mr. Bauer likely acquired Neisseria meningitides while in Brazil, according to records. The commission awarded Ms. Bauer $10,360 in workers comp death benefits, burial expenses and medical expenses.

Omron appealed the commission's decision to the Cook County, Illinois, Circuit Court, which upheld the benefit award to Ms. Bauer. The company then appealed to the Illinois Appellate Court.

The appellate court unanimously upheld Ms. Bauer's benefit award on Friday.

Omron had argued in filings that Ms. Bauer's benefit award was based on a “mere and remote possibility that the employee was exposed to Neisseria meningitides at some unknown time, in an unknown location in Sao Paolo, Brazil” and that she “did not present any evidence that the employee was exposed to a specific carrier of Neisseria meningitides or that he was in any crowded areas in Brazil where there might have been an increased risk of infection.”

However, the appellate court noted that Mr. Bauer had “interviewed candidates for the position of general manager of the Sao Paolo office, traveled to the employment agency's office, most likely by taxi, stayed in a hotel, ate at McDonald's and one other restaurant, spent hours at the employer's Sao Paolo office, and spent several hours at the Sao Paolo airport. …

“He was in contact with numerous people during his trip to Brazil, any one of whom may have been infected with Neisseria meningitides,” the ruling reads.