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Widow of workers comp claimant entitled to survivor benefits: Appeals court


The widow of a workers compensation claimant who died after ingesting multiple prescription pain medications and alcohol is entitled to survivor benefits, the Court of Appeals of the State of Washington ruled.

The ruling in Department of Labor and Industries v. Brian I. Shirley upholds a trial court finding and stems from Mr. Shirley's 2007 accidental death. The appellate court opinion also shows that Mr. Shirley suffered a lower back industrial injury in 2004.

Mr. Shirley's wife found him dead on the morning of May 3, 2007, after he went to bed following an evening of helping a neighbor chop wood. A toxicology report stated that his blood alcohol content was 0.07 grams per 100 mL, slightly below the state-presumed intoxication level of 0.08.

The report also indicated that several other substances were present in Mr. Shirley's blood, including oxycodone, citalopram, desmethylcitalopram, alprazolam, amitriptyline, nortriptyline, carbamazepine, acetaminophen, and promethazine.

Medical experts agreed that none of the drug levels in Mr. Shirley's blood were highly elevated and that neither the drugs nor the alcohol alone would have killed him.

But they also agreed that the drug and alcohol combination suppressed his respiration and gag reflex, which caused him to suffocate.

Although his workers comp claim for the 2004 injury closed in 2005, a doctor had continued treating Mr. Shirley until his death for the effects of the workplace injury. The doctor had prescribed the drugs the toxicology report found in Mr. Shirley's system.

When Ms. Shirley filed for workers comp survivor benefits the Washington Department of Labor and Industries denied the request, and an industrial appeals judge found that Mr. Shirley's consumption of alcohol with the medications amounted to “independent, supervening cause which broke the causal connection between Mr. Shirley's industrial injury and his death.”


But an industrial board overturned the judge's finding and allowed the claim. The trial court affirmed that finding.

The department then went to the appellate court, arguing that the simultaneous consumption of alcohol and multiple medications was an intervening activity that broke the chain of causation between his work injury and his death.

But the appellate court disagreed.

“Mr. Shirley's simultaneous ingestion of alcohol and multiple prescription medications did not break the chain of causation between his industrial injury and his death,” the appellate court said. “Because the medications prescribed to treat pain resulting from Mr. Shirley's industrial injury were a proximate cause of his death, we affirm the trial court's order denying the department's motion for summary judgment and affirming the board's grant of survivor benefits to Ms. Shirley.”