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Death benefits awarded to widow of worker who died from hydrocodone overdose

Posted On: May. 11, 2012 12:00 AM CST

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas—Workers compensation benefits must be awarded for a death caused by an overdose of hydrocodone pain medication prescribed for an on-the-job injury, a Texas appeals court ruled Thursday.

In 2004, a bolt weighing several pounds fell on Bruce Mason Stewart, injuring his shoulder and neck while he worked for an industrial contracting company, the ruling in Commerce & Industry Insurance Co. vs. Kimberly Ferguson-Stewart shows. Mr. Stewart's treating physician instructed him to take a pain pill containing 7.5 milligrams of hydrocodone every eight hours.

But Mr. Stewart died later in 2004, and a toxicology report showed his blood contained a lethal amount of hydrocodone that would require ingesting about 20 of the prescribed pills, court records show.

The toxicology report also showed that Mr. Stewart's blood contained marijuana and carisoprodol, a prescription muscle relaxant.

Mr. Stewart's widow, Kimberly Ferguson-Stewart, sought workers comp death benefits. But the Texas Division of Workers' Compensation determined that Mr. Stewart's death resulted from failure to comply with his doctor's instructions. The division also concluded that Mr. Stewart's death did not result from his 2004 work injury and that his widow was not entitled to benefits.

But on appeal, a trial court jury concluded that Mr. Stewart's death resulted from the treatment for his 2004 injury and that Ms. Ferguson-Stewart is entitled to death benefits.

On Thursday, Texas' 13th District Court of Appeals upheld the jury's finding.

Witnesses had testified that it was possible that Mr. Stewart consumed more pills than he intended because of a possible hydrocodone side effect.

They testified the drug may have caused disorientation and memory loss that led Mr. Stewart to forget how many pills he had consumed.

“This testimony constitutes more than a mere scintilla of evidence because it gives rise to more than a mere surmise or suspicion that a cause other than intentional failure to comply with doctor's instructions was a proximate cause of Stewart's overdose,” the appeals court said.

The evidence was therefore factually sufficient to support a finding that Mr. Stewart's death did not result solely from his intentionally and knowingly failing to comply with his doctor's instructions.